BEN STILLER’S ‘GREENBERG’: Lost Souls Connect In Los Angeles

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Ben Stiller, who has appeared in nine movies that have earned more than
$100 million in domestic grosses, is now starring in an independent-minded film, “Greenberg.”

By Dennis Lim
The New York Times

This month Ben Stiller, who has appeared in nine movies that have earned more than $100 million in domestic grosses, served as honorary chairman of Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. The incongruity was not lost on Mr. Stiller, who had some fun with it onstage. “I think it says volumes about the organizers of this event that even though I’ve been in over 350 studio movies during the last five years,” he said, “the Spirit Awards were bold enough to say, ‘You, Ben Stiller, epitomize our core values.’ ”

What Mr. Stiller neglected to mention was that his new film, “Greenberg,” happens to be a small-scale production with an auteur pedigree (written and directed by Noah Baumbach) and is as intimate and independent-minded a movie as he has done in years.

“I never thought my path would progress the way it has,” Mr. Stiller said recently in an interview at a Manhattan hotel. The son of the comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he first made his mark in sketch comedy, on “Saturday Night Live” and his own short-lived but fondly remembered early 1990s Fox series “The Ben Stiller Show” (on which his friend Judd Apatow got his start). He thought of himself more as a director. As for acting, “I just didn’t think I’d get that opportunity,” he said.

Mr. Stiller has since directed four features, most recently “Tropic Thunder” (2008), but has also become one of the biggest (and most profitable) movie stars on the planet and the linchpin of a powerful funnyman clique. While most of the members of this cohort (which also includes Will Ferrell, Jack Black and various actors in the Apatow company) tend to blend into a larger brotherhood, Mr. Stiller has by and large had the career of a leading man. He anchors family movies and romantic comedies alike, and it says something about his charisma— and perhaps about the dark appetites of the moviegoing public — that he has done so with a screen presence that is often synonymous with anxiety, pain and humiliation.

From his first leading role, in the screwball farce “Flirting With Disaster” (1996), to his first big hit, the gross-out romantic comedy “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), through the franchise-spawning blockbusters “Meet the Parents” (2000) and “Night at the Museum” (2006), Mr. Stiller has played characters defined by their simmering resentments and festering neuroses.

“Greenberg,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, is an often bruising character study, notable for its emotional violence. It’s recognizably the creation of Mr. Baumbach, the director of “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Margot at the Wedding” (2007). But it works equally well as an essay on the Ben Stiller persona.

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Mr. Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a habitual malcontent who returns to Los Angeles after years in New York and a nervous breakdown. A former musician who sabotaged his band on the verge of a major record deal, Roger is house-sitting for his vacationing brother. Reactivating old tensions with his band mates (Rhys Ifans and Mark Duplass) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mr. Baumbach’s wife, who shares story credit), Roger also strikes up an instantly complicated relationship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), a sweetly awkward aspiring singer in her mid-20s who has a day job as his brother’s personal assistant.

At first glance “Greenberg” seems like a departure for Mr. Stiller. But it doesn’t take long to realize that Roger is the most extreme and most finely honed variation yet on Mr. Stiller’s patented character type: the aggrieved, put-upon man-child.

Mr. Baumbach’s brand of humor is more analytical than Mr. Stiller’s, but both men specialize in a comedy of discomfort and mortification. You can imagine the short-fused Roger carrying the psychic burden of Mr. Stiller’s other roles as a perennial punching bag. Somewhere between good sports and masochists, his characters always get the girl but must first endure a series of indignities: zipper and hair-gel debacles in “There’s Something About Mary,” polygraph testing in “Meet the Parents,” gastrointestinal flare-ups in “Along Came Polly.”

Mr. Stiller, 44, and Mr. Baumbach, 40, started out in the same subcultural niche. In 1994 Mr. Stiller made his directing debut with the Generation X romantic comedy “Reality Bites”; the following year Mr. Baumbach directed his own portrait of post-collegiate rootlessness, “Kicking and Screaming.”

A fan of “The Ben Stiller Show,” Mr. Baumbach had long thought of Mr. Stiller as a kindred comic spirit and for “Greenberg,” Mr. Baumbach said, he “wanted someone who knew what was funny about the part.”

Mr. Stiller found plenty that was amusing about Roger, “who says things that are spot on” without censoring himself and is prone to embittered overstatements: when a friend innocently remarks that youth is wasted on the young, he sputters, “Life is wasted on — people.” Still, the film was a change from the wham-bam comedic rhythms typically demanded of Mr. Stiller. “It felt great to not be in a movie that had to be servicing laughs,” he said.

“Greenberg” is the first of Mr. Baumbach’s films to be set in Los Angeles. Both he and Mr. Stiller are native New Yorkers who have grown to love or at least appreciate Los Angeles. “If you don’t embrace what’s there, it’s very hard to fight against it,” said Mr. Stiller, who has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, in violation of what he called “a family tradition.” He added, “I know that I’m not going to live there forever.” (He and his wife, the actress Christine Taylor, have two children, and he said he wants his kids to “have a New York experience growing up.”)

Mr. Baumbach credits Ms. Leigh, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, with helping him see the city in a more expansive light. (The couple divide their time between New York and Los Angeles.) The world of “Greenberg” owes as much to the lived-in, off-Hollywood Los Angeles depicted in the ’70s films of John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby as it does to the queasy languor of Joan Didion’s California.

Roger is a native Angeleno, but the city makes him feel even more alienated. A dip in a swimming pool turns into a panicked dog paddle. He no longer drives, and his lack of mobility leaves him either a sore-thumb pedestrian or a needy passenger. Mr. Baumbach recalled discussing these aspects of the character in an early conversation with Mr. Stiller: “Ben said to me, ‘You know, the fact that he doesn’t drive or swim seems to me beyond pathetic, beyond what we can expect even in this character.’ To which I replied, ‘I don’t drive and I don’t really swim.’ ” (Mr. Baumbach got his driver’s license last month.)

For Mr. Stiller “Greenberg” captures a central fact of Los Angeles life. “There’s an emptiness out there that can be healthy and also very tough,” he said. “It forces you to look at yourself — you don’t have the distractions of the city to go out and pick up on everyone else’s energy. In a good way that can feed you. But to wake up in the morning and have this quiet and emptiness, you have to deal with where you’re at. That’s the Greenberg effect and that can be a little scary.”

The film nudged Mr. Stiller out of his comfort zone in several ways. For one thing he’s used to treating a script as a “working blueprint,” he said, something to smooth out and punch up on the fly. But Mr. Baumbach, an exacting writer, is not keen on improvisation. Mr. Stiller said it was “freeing and really kind of exciting” to realize that “this isn’t going to be a process of me making the script feel more comfortable for myself as an actor. It’s going to be about me as an actor trying to understand the character more.”

For Roger social situations are disasters waiting to happen, and his encounters with Florence are especially cringe making. “As much as Roger was abusive, Ben was protective,” Ms. Gerwig said, adding that the subtleties of his performance explain why Florence might fall for someone who constantly behaves like a jerk. “There’s a brittle shell he wears to protect the softer person inside,” she said.

Just as Florence draws Roger out of that shell, Mr. Stiller credits Ms. Gerwig with helping him shed what he called a “cynical-actor point of view.” “It’s very easy for me to think of the satiric ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’ sketch where the actor is talking about himself in the third person,” he said. But Ms. Gerwig’s palpable connection to her role prompted him to take a more sincere approach than he usually does. “Her character was a real person to her, and that really set the tone for me,” he said.

“Greenberg” represents a slight shift, if not quite a new phase, in the career of Mr. Stiller, who said he had wanted to branch out from mainstream comedy for some time. There are the usual big movies on the horizon — a new Fockers movie is due out later this year — but he’s also getting ready to direct and star in “Help Me Spread Goodness,” a drama for the socially minded company Participant Media about a banker who falls for a Nigerian e-mail scam.

Mr. Stiller isn’t planning to give up the role of media satirist that he has staked out in television appearances and films he has directed like “The Cable Guy” (1996), “Zoolander” (2001) and “Tropic Thunder.” But he noted that the fragmentation of popular culture has made parody trickier. “There’s a lot to take in,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy trying to keep up with all that.”

“Greenberg,” the story of a 40-ish man compelled to take stock of his life, resonates on a personal level, Mr. Stiller said, even though his circumstances are worlds apart from Roger’s. “There are things I regret which I think are as big as anything Greenberg might regret,” he said. “I’ve just been able to have other things that soften the blow.”

With Greenberg, Mr. Stiller’s gallery of neurotic underdogs expands to include a sometimes truly off-putting misanthrope. “It’s not that hard for me,” he said. “I couldn’t worry about trying to make him likable. I really think he’s a guy who has good intentions and has just put up all these roadblocks.”

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Mr. Stiller also detects in this anti-hero’s daily existence a quiet heroism. “I think it’s a really noble struggle,” he said, “imperfect people trying to get through every day of their lives.”

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