A romantic comedy can be broken down into three parts: a hot chick, a funny sex scene and the awkward guy. But in “Greenberg,” the awkward guy steals the show.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is an unmarried, vulnerable and sexually frustrated 40-year-old. Whether Roger is capable of a long-term relationship is up for debate, but mostly, he is neurotic and psychologically unstable.
Stiller has been typecast in the past, usually playing the role of the awkward, funny guy in standard-fare romantic comedies. Director Noah Baumbach gives Stiller a chance in “Greenberg” to break out of his caricature, with a role worthy of his strong comedic acting. Stiller digs into his own wit and originality and uses it to portray a man who doesn’t understand his own motives. As Roger, Stiller plays a complex, confused and contradictory protagonist who finds some solace in Florence (Greta Gerwig), a caring love interest who sees through his neuroses.
The film has strong sexual undertones that many romantic comedies imply but never explicitly explore. Instead of being tasteless, these scenes add to the film’s honest tone. Baumbach doesn’t idealize romance, and Roger and Florence’s relationship is shown in an empathetic, realistic light.
In many ways, these two characters are quite insane, and Baumbach uses this to his advantage. An especially telling scene, one which makes viewers cringe and laugh, involves Roger attempting to ask out his ex-girlfriend. Stiller captures the confused and awkward behavior of a man trying to hold onto something that is no longer there.
Many awkward moments and painful realizations ensue in Roger’s life, and Stiller does well at portraying these random outbursts of confusion. Instead of being melodramatic, these moments capture the subtle, often contradictory and illogical moments in a romantic relationship.
The film stands outside of the nefarious romantic-comedy genre. Though the film is at times darker and lethargic — adjectives that would never be used for a romantic comedy — “Greenberg” is careful not to get trapped in its own misery. The humor in the film is well-timed and surprising. The film stays afloat because of random moments of absurdity.
Baumbach keeps the film quirky and upbeat. Characters talk fast and make allusions to other movies and songs, keeping the film contemporary and anchored in pop culture references.
“Greenberg” works on a level of realism. Baumbach has an ear for natural dialogue. When a film explores the inherent problems in a relationship, dialogue is a vital aspect for the film’s success. Here, the film makes the ongoing conversation between Roger and Florence a priority. Even as the film spirals into the less attractive moments in a romantic relationship, such as unrequited love and even abortion, the dialogue keeps viewers hooked.
Baumbach’s film is more endearing than annoying, and that’s a compliment for a film that seeks empathy for its characters. Overall, the film turns a sympathetic lens to its protagonist, even when his actions are cringe-worthy and make no sense.
“Greenberg” was written and directed by Noah Baumbach.