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Baumbach’s “Greenberg”: Lost Souls Connect in Los Angeles

Baumbach's "Greenberg": Lost Souls Connect in Los Angeles

Opposites attract in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” the fifth feature film from Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Mr. Jealousy,” “Kicking and Screaming”). Brooklyn native Baumbach wrote the story with his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh and they set it in Los Angeles where they now live. But, it was inspired, in part, by Baumbach’s yearning for home.

Baumbach said he was struck by LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” a track that he describes as, “a song about aging, about feeling like you are losing your edge.” He continued, “It became another voice for me in the movie.” So much so, that he enlisted LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to write the score for “Greenberg.”

“This is the first time where I made a movie that I feel the score is a real part of the movie,” Baumbach added yesterday.

The soundtrack — Murphy’s score and an eclectic mix of classic songs — bind a number of strong elements in Baumbach’s latest — writing, acting and cinematography — into a stirring Berlinale competition entry that seemed to resonate with folks here at the festival.

“Greenberg” stars Ben Stiller as the eponymous character. He’s forty years old, directionless and recovering from a nervous breakdown. He heads west to spend a few weeks in his successful brother’s hillside home while the family is away on vacation. Homebound because he can’t drive, he quickly connects with his sibling’s young, overly accommodating personal assistant, played by Greta Gerwig.

Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach yesterday in Berlin. Photo via Berlinale

Gerwig’s Florence is the sort of person, in Baumbach’s words, who always puts other people’s needs in front of her own. Meanwhile, Stiller’s Greenberg is a neurotic who constantly lashes out and pushes people away. Someone here in Berlin pegged it recently: she’s passive, he’s aggressive.

“Noah wrote two very specific characters, two very real people who are dealing with their own issues in life,” explained Stiller, during a press conference in Berlin, calling the film duo and unlikely pair. Gerwig, reflected on her character’s attraction to Greenberg. “There are elements of a love story there,” she said, “But for me it was a very well told story about two people who are just going through their lives.”

Stiller and Gerwig were forced to stick close to Baumbach’s script, the comedic actor reigned in for a more restrained, serious performance and the mumblecore actress — known for “Nights and Weekends,” “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” “Baghead,” and “LOL” — acting on a larger, more structured scale.

“Somebody would say you’re a total idiot to hire Ben Stiller and not let him improvise,” Baumbach confessed at the press conference. “You idiot,” shot back Stiller, relating that he once tried to get Baumbach to consider a change in the script, but when it was time to shoot, the screenplay hadn’t been changed. Pulling back, Stiller praised Baumbach for writing so specifically and working so precisely.

“If I wasn’t in this movie, I would go and see it and all my friends would see it and then we’d talk about it a lot,” Gerwig enthused, “Noah chooses his words so carefully, every scene reads like a short story or a play.”

“I wanted it so badly, I was scared,” Gerwig added gratefully. “I just feel great that now I am in real movies,” Gerwig beamed, during a press conference yesterday. Then she caught herself. “Not that the other ones weren’t,” she quickly added.

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