April 22, 2010

Everybody Hurts Sometimes

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“Hurt people hurt people.” In any other Ben Stiller movie this line would refer to some sort of slapstick. At best, it could refer to a Derek Zoolander attempt at being deep, but mostly providing hilarity. But in his most recent film, Greenberg, this line is actually deep, and shockingly serious. Greenberg is the story of a man named Roger Greenberg, played by Stiller, who has just had a mental breakdown. While his brother, Phillip, goes to Vietnam on vacation with his well-to-do Hollywood family, Roger stays in their home to focus on doing nothing except for making the family dog, Mahler, a dog house. Roger’s brother tells him that if he needs anything while he is staying at their home he should call Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s personal assistant. Florence is an extremely hard-working assistant, whose unrelenting dedication to her job can be seen in her tired face, her lack of emphasis on personal upkeep and her knowingness about all things at the Greenberg home. Roger doesn’t want to call Florence, as it would signify his dependence on another person — and you can tell that now out of a psychiatric hospital, he is eager to be reaccepted into society and be independent. However, lacking a license in Los Angeles immediately requires help. Florence initially offers to go grocery shopping for Roger when she runs into him when she claims to be getting her check from her employer. Florence is aware of Roger’s stint in the mental hospital and is sympathetic to him, not only because she is a sympathetic, kind person throughout the film (most evident when the Greenberg family dog Mahler, falls ill) but because she is dealing with her own identity crisis. She remarks to a strange man, who she ends up having a one night stand with, that she has been out of college as long as she was in it and no one would notice whether she got out of bed or not. Regardless of whether or not this is the case — she seems highly valued by the Greenberg family — it is how she feels. Roger is perpetually awkward around Florence — reflecting how uncomfortable both of them are in their own skin. Roger ends up calling Florence to hang out and get a drink soon after they meet. Drinking, for Roger, is one of the key tenets of doing nothing. Roger and Florence don’t end up going out and end up engaging in an awkward sex scene that is just as reflective of Roger’s adolescence and lack of control as his drinking and the grocery list he gives to Florence which merely contains whiskey and ice cream sandwiches, which sounds like something a teen would eat if his parents left him alone for the weekend. Roger and Florence begin to engage in a rollercoaster relationship where Roger at one point will compare Florence to his friend Ivan’s (Rhys Ifans) estranged wife (he is completely unaware how inappropriate it is to compare causal dating to a wife) and at other times will brush her off as incredibly unimportant. He is incredibly hurtful to her and manipulates her by twisting her words and makes her feel completely worthless. Meanwhile Roger — who keeps reflecting on his adolescence, when he was in a successful band that didn’t get signed purely because of him — is also trying to woo back the remnants his old life. He goes to a party to see his old band mates who have moved on with their life. At the age of 40 they have gotten married, had children and become homeowners. Roger has none of that. He gets closest to his old friend Ivan, who is living in a hotel room struggling with his separation and has a mediocre job repairing computers. He also tries to cozy up to his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is also in the process of divorce. To both Ivan and Beth, Roger tries to make his life seem ideal. He tries to woo Ivan with reckless drinking — Ivan is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. To Beth, Roger tries to brag about how he is doing nothing. Beth’s response? “That’s brave at our age,” she lies — Roger and his lifestyle are so unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her. The theme of “hurt people hurt people” is a selfish thing that only Roger can believe in. Because he was hurt, it’s acceptable to hurt Florence. But he hurt Beth and Ivan when he was younger, and neither one of them is particularly hurtful to him. Despite the role being outside of Ben Stiller’s usual repertoire, he does a good job being immature, selfish, narcissistic and nostalgic. Unfortunately, despite Ben Stiller’s success in acting, the storyline is meandering and maudlin. The film leaves you with a poignant emptiness making one consider how important maturation is and the importance of staying in control of your life so you don’t end up unhappy with how it turned out like all of these characters.

3.5 Towers

Original Author: Cara Sprunk