I am still working my way through Roger Ebert’s Best of 2010 list. This weekend I got to Noah Baumbach’s unprepossessing Greenberg, which is technically on Ebert’s Second Ten Best List…. The movie got little attention when it came out, and one can see how hard it would be to market. Ben Stiller cranky and unlikeable? No plot to speak of? No female name-brand star? The film trudges uphill as perversely as Roger Greenberg in this film still: he is a man in L.A. who can no longer drive a car. Yet the film is good: well written, very well performed. with its own quiet charm. Baumbach was not nearly as understated in his first success, The Squid and the Whale, as he is here, where nothing gets “explained” or “worked out.” The main characters–Greenberg, his brother’s personal assistant, and his college buddy–struggle through complicated, enmeshed relationships with credible awkwardness and grace. Their actors–Stiller, Greta Gerwig, and Rhys Ifans, respectively–deliver subtle, complex performances. Stiller is an especial surprise since we think we know him already. Here he is physically changed, his whole body slumped, his manic energy mostly tamed. He holds on to just enough charm to make you believe that these people put up with him.
The film begins, somewhat perversely too, by following Greta Gerwig’s character around on her odyssey of errands in L.A. The camera stays close to her face, but she is utterly unselfconscious. At the steering wheel, she turns to face us. “Will you let me in?” she asks an unseen driver. Yes! She celebrates. Then, later, again: “will you let me in?” No, not this time. She sighs. The scene seems a microcosm of the film as a whole: as difficult and unpredictable as Greenberg himself, but earning its tiny triumphs.