“Greenberg” (2010)

All I knew going in was that it starred Ben Stiller and that I had heard positive things about his performance. I wasn’t sure if it was a serious role for him, or a comedy. I like Ben Stiller, generally, but about the most serious role I’d ever seen him in was the excellent (and filmed in Portland) “Zero Effect”, playing straight man Steve Arlo to Bill Pullman’s autistic and zany private investigator.

So last weekend, ignoring the awesome weather, I bought a ticket for a matinĂ©e showing of “Greenberg” to escape for a bit.

I was the only person in the theater.

Have you ever watched a comedy by yourself? You know a movie is funny when you laugh out loud and there’s no one else around. For some reason, our being in a group of people makes laughter more likely; likewise, being alone seems to make laughter less likely.

As I sat in the theater, alone, and watched Greta Gerwig as Florence, housekeeper/assistant to a rich and apparently high-strung couple, I wasn’t sure of the tone. It all felt so natural and understated. There were no laugh lines. Just people going about their business.

When the Greenberg’s leave for their vacation to Vietnam, and Florence gets a call from her boss’ brother, there’s no indication of trouble. But… it was Ben Stiller. And he was being very Ben Stiller-esque.

But was it funny? Or was it dramatic?

As the story progressed, and the 40-something Roger Greenberg displayed familiar entitled nice-guy behavior towards 25-year-old Florence Marr, I felt awkward and creeped out. Greenberg’s advances seemed predatory and both amply telegraphed and yet hidden. His passive-aggressive actions towards Florence, as well as towards his closest friend, Ivan Shrank (sad-faced Rhys Ifans), made me wince.

Around halfway through the film, I had the realization that this awkwardness is similar to what I feel watching Steve Carell on The Office. And that sometimes, it makes me laugh.

Is that what they were going for? I still can’t tell.

As a movie, I enjoyed it, though maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word. Stiller’s performance of a man who has deep issues with self-esteem and emotional expression was spot-on, though painful to watch – a pain that I sometimes express as laughter, because why not? I can’t believe he just did that!

I sought out the trailer after the fact, to see if I could discern if the movie was being marketed as a drama or as a comedy or something in-between, a “dramedy”. But given the generic trailer, I still could not tell.

Here, watch the trailer and judge for yourself.