“Greenberg:” How Staying in the Past Hurts the Present

Nuanced performances and moving writing turns “Greenberg” into a portrait of a man holding onto his past.


Noah McBrien, Staff Writer

Florence, a middling woman in her twenties, housekeeps for the Greenbergs, a well-off family living in California. When they’re away in Vietnam for the opening of one of the father, Phillip’s hotels, his brother Roger comes to stay after being released from a mental hospital. Anxiously holding onto his past, Roger rediscovers the life he left in California after moving to New York when he was younger and must move on when Florence falls in love with him. 

“Greenberg” is a surprisingly gripping movie that follows Roger’s time in California, a month that I believe anyone could find in their lifetime.

I strongly empathized with Roger, who represents anyone who has felt stuck in their lives, trapped by a past that they have yet to live through. He struggles with his identity, who he is supposed to be after being confronted with the now-aged figures of his past, including his old band, his friend Ivan and Beth, who may be his only ex.

His struggle is obviously seen in what he wears, a rotation of band shirts, jean jackets and ruffled, long hair with a clean shaven face. His taste in music hasn’t changed, and he still has no real job aside from the dog house his brother pitifully asked him to build. In the words of Ivan and their former bandmates, he’s “a bit of a prince.”

What gives the greatest push to Roger’s story are the monologues by either him, Ivan or Florence, as well as the dialogue between them. The three push each other in directions that reveal their depths to us and thus their flaws. When Roger’s opening up to Florence after they gave up their relationship and then tried it again, he admits, “A shrink told me once, I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place.” 

Sensing his vulnerability, Florence opens up by asking, “Do you think you could love me?”

“I don’t know, Florence,” Roger exhales.

What also characterizes Roger’s persistent doubt about life is Ben Stiller’s performance. There’s a sincerity that can be seen in his gaunt, worried expression when telling Ivan off after merely suggesting that he should make an appearance at his own pool party. After Ivan mentions that it’s a small world, since Marlon and Peggy’s son goes to the same school as his own son, Roger ribs, “Why is that news to you? It is a small world. I’m surprised we don’t run into each other more often.” Adding, as if to disprove Ivan’s observation, “You and I used to go to school together.”

That gets to Rhys Ifans tender, yet tired, performance as Ivan, the band member who hasn’t chosen to forget about Roger, considering their long friendship together as the co-writers of the group. They have chemistry, Stiller and Ifans as their respective characters of Roger and Ivan, which is realized when Ivan half-listens to Roger’s complaint to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, despite how boring and pointless it is. Another moment is Ivan’s honesty when Roger asks what other people say about him. “You can’t laugh at yourself. You lie about things you don’t need to lie about.”

As was standard for a time in the director, Noah Baumbach’s films, Greta Gerwig gives a satisfying performance. Florence, forgiving and thoughtful, puts aside Roger’s awkwardness and lack of charm to find someone who is as confused as she is about what to do with their lives. Her sincerity and earnestness with Roger contrasts his coldness and confusion. Stiller and Gerwig had chemistry despite the differences between themselves and their characters. When discussing her love for Roger, Florence contemplates, “I just get excited to see you, and then,” she squints as if confused by herself, “I think I get worried it’s gonna go too fast, so I say things to get a reaction.”

In a penultimate scene, begrudgingly attending his niece’s college party at the house, Roger is confronted by how different his life has been compared to Ivan’s. Ivan has been in a marriage for 10 years that’s sinking, but he knows he needs to save it for the sake of his child, Victor’s well-being, as well as his own sanity. Roger has only dated a couple women, but condescends Ivan, “Don’t give in. I know it’s the harder, more painful decision to stay free, but that’s what adulthood is. I could just stay with Florence because it’s easy, but I don’t want easy.”

What Roger realizes in the next scene, when he’s invited to travel to Australia with his niece and her college buddy, is that he’s been running from life’s commitments. The ones we make to others, knowingly or not, are the ones we either learn to nurture or ignore altogether. So, when he’s being driven to the airport, Roger frantically opens the handle and stays in California, thus embracing the life he didn’t plan on having but has found himself in.

Gerwig, Ifans and Stiller make “Greenberg” much more engaging than the writers may have hoped for, and the script alone could have made for a solid, character-focused piece. Altogether, they bring a broken, lost man’s life full-circle, and it’s beautiful. And, it’s now on Netflix.