In defense of Ben Stiller in Greenberg
Just how unbearable is Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s new film “Greenberg”? To list a few things he does that might annoy or tick off the audience: He tells people he’s “deliberately” not doing anything as of now, he regularly points out other people’s faults, he is a self-proclaimed misanthrope (when he hears “Youth is wasted on the young” he says, “I’d go further, I’d go life is wasted on…people”), and he is unbearably cruel to his new girlfriend Florence (Greta Gerwig). Likeability of Greenberg aside, does Ben Stiller do justice to the character he plays? The answer is yes, and his rendering of Greenberg might make for one of the most fascinating characters in recent cinema.
More than 10 years ago, Greenberg refused to sign a record deal when he was in a band, disappointing every one of his band mates. When the movie’s plot begins, he is a 40-year-old carpenter who’s just been released from a mental institution. He moves into his brother’s house in L.A. to house-sit for a few weeks, where he meets Florence, his brother’s assistant and a hopeful college grad. Throughout the film, Greenberg presents himself as a self-obsessed character in arrested development, always depending on someone else—especially Florence—for even the most menial tasks. While watching the film, I saw many people shaking their heads incredulously at some of the things Greenberg says. Probably the moment at which many were turned off by Greenberg’s character was when he lashes out against his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans). He says some of the worst possible things one can ever say to a best pal. “People think you play the victim,” Greenberg tells Ivan.
What is so special about Ben Stiller’s performance is that it never feels forced. Stiller plays Greenberg with remarkable ease and openness; we do not see any façade or pretense in his performance. Greenberg is Greenberg, and whether he’s a saint or a completely loathsome person does not matter. We see Greenberg without any filter that might’ve existed had the film been directed by someone too cautious of the audience’s reactions. It’s a risky choice to play such an easily unlikeable character, but Stiller enables us to connect with his character without letting go of the wobbly thread of sympathy we hold on to. His character says contradictory and hurtful things, but he also proves himself to be sincere, compassionate and vulnerable. At one point in the film, Greenberg, who awkwardly mingles with high school kids at a house party, sees a dead animal afloat in the middle of a pool. The kids are obviously disgusted by this; Greenberg is thoroughly disturbed. To him, this so-called life and death does not make any sense. Is there any meaning in life when such tragic and miserable things can happen so casually? Only when a kid grabs him by the shoulder and jolts him does he come back from his daze.
In a scathing remark on Stiller’s performance, Kyle Smith of the New York Post states that “It’s odd that Baumbach […] would think that in his 40s Stiller would suddenly deliver a first-rate dramatic performance.” (March, 2010) That, “Stiller doesn’t register internal anguish so much as peevishness” seems to be the exact first impression of the character most audiences would have. It might be that Mr. Smith is more annoyed by the character himself than Stiller’s acting. Stiller deserves much more credit for his honest representation of Greenberg—an egotistic and annoying character with genuine emotions.
Stiller’s work will inevitably be compared to Adam Sandler’s in Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychedelic love-story “Punch Drunk Love” (2002). Both comedians play very similar roles as social outcasts with obsessive compulsions who fall in love and make little changes as they open themselves up. These actors have escaped their typecast roles and surprised us with emotionally rich acting. It’d be fascinating to watch Mr. Stiller and other established comedians take on more dramatic roles (not again as the dreadful Focker) and continue to widen their acting palettes.