Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene is not merely famous for its iconic content. It also represents an entirely unforeseen dramatic shift in the narrative, as Marion Crane, the character we have spent the last hour with, is shockingly disposed of a full hour before the end of the film. The rest of the movie then moves us into the uncomfortable position of following new central characters: her boyfriend and sister, as they investigate the eery motel where she was last seen alive.
Greenberg opens with a similar narrative device: focussing on Florence (Greta Gerwig), who will later become Greenberg’s (Ben Stiller) love interest. For the first ten/fifteen minutes of the movie, we find out what Florence’s life is like, as well as hearing a bit about Greenberg from the point of view of his brother, who she works for.
The narrative shift from Florence to the title character, which was presumably seen as an interesting way to introduce us to Greenberg, perfectly highlights the film’s greatest weakness. Namely, it’s at its best when we’re not with Ben Stiller’s character.
Unlike Greenberg, both Florence and Greenberg’s best friend Ivan, react to circumstances in a real, understandable, and sympathetic way. As such it’s easy to get behind their actions and motivations in the movie.
Greenberg, however, seems to have no concern for anyone but himself through out the entire movie. He is a character stuck in the past and full of regret. Regret over a record deal he turned down with his band fifteen years previous. Regret over a relationship he let fizzle out, and which he now realises could have ended in marriage. Regret that he’s in his forties and seems to have nothing to show for it.
Perhaps we are supposed to sympathise with him because he’s recently been in a mental hospital because of his depression. However, we never get a sense of his sadness, unlike say Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine. Instead, we just get a character frustrated at being unable to relax and take a step back like everyone else. This is reflected in his main hobby: writing letters of complaint about the most trivial of matters to as many different companies as possible.
All of this makes the central relationship between him and Florence incredibly difficult to buy into. Any emotional engagement or pay-off the movie hoped to achieve falling well wide of the mark. And if a movie like this cannot convince you of the reality of the emotion of its characters, if you cannot empathise or even sympathise with their plight, I feel like it’s failed.
Greenberg is a movie clearly written by intelligent people who felt as though they had an important story to tell and that people could really relate to. Its themes of regret and fear over one’s future should be universal. However, in creating a central character so isolated in his worldview, these themes fail to connect on any dramatic or emotional level. As such any successes it does have pale into insignificance in comparison to this major failure.