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The Dog in Greenberg

Small role, big impact
By Lisa Wogan, April 2010, Updated June 2021

When I realized I hadn’t seen any of the Oscar-nominated films, I ratcheted up my movie-viewing in the days before the Academy Awards. That momentum has carried over and I continue to play catch-up on recent releases. Seeing so many major movies back to back (including Up at last. Hooray for Doug!), I’ve been surprised by the number of times dogs make significant appearances in what are by all accounts not dog movies.

Sometimes it’s just a little comic relief, like the famed detective’s put-upon Bulldog in Sherlock Holmes or the little white pup scooped up by an eagle (not really) in The Proposal. Other times, dogs, even in small roles, are critical to the revelation of human character, such was the case in A Single Man—where a pair of Smooth Fox Terriers helps communicate profound love and loss.


It’s also the case in Greenberg. In this new film from The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller plays the unlikeable Roger Greenberg—an anxious, grumpy 40-year-old only a confused Gen Yer (played by Greta Gerwig) or a dog could love. The dog in this case is a lushly furred German Shepherd named Mahler, who develops an autoimmune disease while in the self-centered protagonist’s care. When Greenberg performs small gestures for Mahler—administering his medication covered in peanut butter—we see that he is not entirely a lost cause. And his caring for a dog appears to translate into caring for another human. I wish Mahler had been given more to do than lie on his side, but I did like his role because it captures the way a dog can crack open a closed heart.

To see Mahler and experience the film's deadpan tone, check out this scene in a vet's waiting room (in all my years, I've never seen a waiting room this crowded or with such a diversity of creatures, so much for total realism):

Film still from Greenberg, courtesy of Focus Features.


Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of several books including Dog Park Wisdom.