By Phil Wallace

With a rare serious role in the movie Greenberg, Ben Stiller has generated Oscar buzz for the first time in his career. But is his performance enough to earn him a nomination?

If Greenberg had come out in November instead of March, then he would certainly be in the conversation. This is because Stiller is a big name from Hollywood royalty who would garner some attention from industry types for doing something different. But March movies seldom get noticed by Academy voters, and Stiller seems to lack energy for the part. On the other hand, Greta Gerwig has a breakout performance as the female lead, and she should be discussed for Best Supporting Actress… even if the timing of Greenberg makes that less likely.

Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a 40-year old man recently released from a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. He flies from New York to Los Angeles in order to housesit for his much more successful younger brother, who has taken his family on an overseas vacation for six weeks.

Greenberg works to adapt to life in LA without a car, while developing an awkward –  and at times sexual – relationship with his brother’s assistant Florence (played by Gerwig). Greenberg is generally a failure at life, and his inability to live in the present coupled with his hope futile hopes at reliving the past are common themes throughout the film. Greenberg can no longer fulfill his lifelong dreams, and much of the movie is about him and his friends having come to grips with that reality.

Stiller is fairly convincing as the arrogant and short-tempered Greenberg, but his portrayal of Roger seems to be missing the extra punch needed to turn in a great performance. Too often, Stiller has the same slightly smug look on his face, and he only seems break out of it when he snaps into mini-rage. Like Adam Sandler’s more serious roles, Stiller makes the transition from comedy to drama by toning himself down while seeming unable to infuse new energy back into his part. Stiller’s performance is still considerably better than Sandler’s, in say, Spanglish, but the dramatic role still doesn’t quite work for him.

In the meantime, Gerwig is an absolute winner as the young and quirky assistant. Gerwig plays a character that a 20-something could easily find today, yet one seldom sees the traits she’s portrays exhibited on the big screen. The director, Noah Baumbach, clearly understands the post-college demographic in his decision to cast Gerwig.

Florence has dreams of her own, but she lacks ambition and tries her best just to get by. In reality she’s dedicated to her employer, extremely diligent with her assignments, but generally confused about how to handle life. Florence generally accepts everything offered to her in the world, with both an open-mind an apparent fear of ever saying “no,” even though she looks at the offerings with a healthy dose of skepticism. She’s cute, she’s quirky, but she struggles to find the opportunity to just be herself.

If Greenberg had come out later in the year, then Gerwig’s performance is the type of role that would certainly make her a candidate for a Best Supporting Actress nomination (or Best Actress, depending on how the film’s producers would want to designate her). But barring a surprise marketing campaign from Focus Features and Universal Pictures, it’s likely most voters won’t even think to put the DVD into their players… if it even gets mailed to them.

It’s a shame, because Greenberg captures the essence of what it’s like to live in Los Angeles (especially Hollywood) as well as any movie that’s come out in recent years. The city is almost like the film’s third character, and one that the vast majority of Academy members could identify with. The repeated driving dilemmas are all too familiar to Angelinos, as are the Runyon Canyon hikes, and one truly gets the sense that each character is isolated in their own little pod when they’re at home.

Still, Gerwig’s performance is about the only thing that’s Oscar-worthy about Greenberg. Without giving too much away, the film loses focus in its final 30 minutes, seems to go in several different bizarre directions, only to leave viewers with an unfulfilling and oddly muted ending.