Having failed to make something of himself while his friends have developed successful careers and families, Roger Greenberg has left New York to house sit for his well-to-do brother in Los Angeles, where he is attempting to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. There he chances to meet his brother’s twentysomething assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), who turns out to be relationship material, in part because she is so passive she is able to absorb all of Greenberg’s abusive behavior and deflected self-loathing.
The depth of his self-hatred apparently extends to his Jewish background, as evidenced when Greenberg is persuaded to attend a Bel Air bar-be-queue where he meets up with some old Jewish friends. These men are comfortably chatting about whether anyone has been to so-and-so’s seder; various Jewish connections, and what constitutes a “Jewish” gesture (“You’re doing this,” one of them says to Greenberg, miming his effusive hand gesticulations). “I’m half [Jewish],” Greenberg says. “You look full,” a friend replies. The appalled Greenberg has as much disdain for this Tribal schmoozing as he professes for his wealthy friends whom, in his opinion, have abandoned creativity in order to become successful. “Most people think I look Italian,” he says, sulkily. “My mother is actually Protestant, so I’m not Jewish at all.”
Stiller’s own mother, the actress Anne Meara, converted to Judaism upon marrying fellow actor Jerry Stiller; Ben Stiller unabashedly identifies with the Tribe and also has mined his background to comic effect (during his stint as a presenter at the 2010 Academy Awards, he peppered his “Avatar” spoof with Hebrew). In “Meet the Parents” and its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” Stiller plays a nebbishy Jewish nurse who is continually humiliated by his WASP father-in-law (Robert De Niro), a former CIA agent. The third installment in the franchise, “Little Fockers,” will hit theaters Dec. 22, with a screenplay by Stiller’s longtime in-house writer, John Hamburg.
“The non-Jewish characters in the films are not anti-Semitic,” Hamburg told me last year. “But there is the sense that Ben feels out of place among WASPS and also because he is a man who is not a doctor, but a nurse, which creates a kind of stigma.”
Much as I loved “Zoolander,” I’m hoping “Greenberg” is a return to the dramatic style that Stiller demonstrated in “Zero Effect.”
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