Some films are a chore to watch, but many of these reward the viewer’s effort with a character that lives on well after the film has finished. Greenberg is such a film. Its central character, who exists in a cloud of mental illness, faces a banal life, overshadowed by his failures and their impact on those around him. Miserable, perhaps, but the character is not merely recognisable; he elicits an empathy that outlasts his film.
This character, Roger Greenberg, superbly portrayed by Ben Stiller (who I had previously thought a mediocre actor) finds himself resident in his brother’s California home while the family is away after a stint in a psych ward in New York. His condition is never identified, and this is critical; he could be any one of us. Likewise the film’s heroine, Florence Marr (played brilliantly by the little-known Greta Gerwig), presents another kind of mental instability, and elicits a similar empathy.
It takes a special kind of writer to come up with an engaging script around the theme of mental illness, but that is precisely what writer Noah Baumbach has managed to achieve in Greenberg. It’s one of those films that survives being slow thanks to strong characters portrayed honestly and without a silly gush of emotion.