Sad, funny, and acutely self-conscious, Noah Baumbach's new movie is the sort of mordant character study that people imagine were common in the '70s. Greenberg is unafraid to project a downbeat worldview or feature an impossible protagonist — I'd be hard put to name one as maddening as the eponymous antihero unless it was Nicole Kidman's self-absorbed writer in Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding. Unlike pain-in-the-ass Margot, however, loser Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is also painfully poignant.
Baumbach's sixth feature is his first to be set in Los Angeles, and the director wastes no time commenting on the milieu. Introduced navigating Sunset Boulevard, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) is the personal assistant to a Hollywood Hills hot shot (Chris Messina) who is packing up his family for a vacation in Vietnam. The ever-obliging Florence is supposed to do whatever she can for her boss' high-strung brother, Roger, who, newly released from a mental hospital back East, will be house-sitting and looking after the family dog, Mahler. That blanket “whatever” will cover multitudes — not least of which is Greenberg's refusal to drive.
Making no bid for audience sympathy, Stiller plays Greenberg with the haunted look of a man not more than a single missed cue away from total rage. A failed rock musician turned carpenter, he's a cranky, opinionated, self-pitying know-it-all — not unlike the father in The Squid and the Whale, but even more volatile, anxious, and humorless. (On first meeting Florence, he insists on playing the classic rock chestnut “It Never Rains in Southern California” and instructing her as to its significance.) Greenberg explains that his current project is “doing nothing,” which includes writing unsent letters of complaint to airlines, Starbucks, and Michael Bloomberg.
This is Stiller's juiciest role since he cast himself as a mock Stallone in Tropic Thunder, and here, he's even more comically self-absorbed. “I'm not one of those preening L.A. people who wants everything to be about them,” Greenberg maintains while imposing himself on his brutally depressed erstwhile bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Taken by Ivan to see old friends, gathered for an acutely discomfiting children's party, Greenberg insists on justifying his diva fuckup of 15 years before, especially when confronted with another former mate (Mark Duplass). Later at Florence's, Greenberg makes an abrupt pass, which she docilely accepts (“I'm wearing kind of an ugly bra”) … up to a point. Their relationship, or lack thereof, is the movie's ongoing disaster. The mumblecore sexbomb of Hannah Takes the Stairs, Gerwig here appears unformed and ungainly, as well as naturalistically ambivalent — she's been successfully Baumbachized.
The Squid and the Whale was one of the most rueful autobiographical movies since The 400 Blows; Greenberg is an oblique sequel as well as a movie that parodies its own intelligence. Not much happens. In the service of the shaggy dog story, Mahler develops a medical condition. Greenberg drifts into an entropic club to hear Florence listlessly perform before an open mike. Ivan takes Greenberg out to Hollywood's venerable Musso & Frank for his 41st birthday and, once there, Greenberg decides to invite Florence; when she shows, he ducks out to phone his less-than-interested old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who provided the movie's story and coproduced), then throws a tantrum when birthday cake arrives. Neither inappropriate behavior nor awkward sex, another Baumbach specialty, dissuades go-with-the-Flo; Greenberg has to be unspeakably mean before she finally gets it.
In the movie's set piece, Greenberg returns to his temporary digs to find the house taken over by his niece and her 20-year-old friends. Party time! Uncle Roger tries to get in the mood: “Is it okay to mix coke and Zoloft?” he wonders. Increasingly manic, leaping over the room to change the music, or stop someone from feeding Mahler, Greenberg can't stop babbling: “I read an article — aren't you guys all just fucking on the Internet?” A yucky animal corpse in the pool and what sounds like Serge Gainsbourg in his brain, Greenberg leaves Florence a hilarious voicemail message en route to another crack-up.
As befits the son of two writers, Baumbach is a notably literate filmmaker — his Greenberg is a defeated cousin to Saul Bellow's similarly obsessed Moses Herzog. Greenberg is no less witty than Baumbach's previous features, but it's more adroitly off-handed. In addition to employing the artfully artless Gerwig, Baumbach has adopted a useful degree of mumblecordian casualness. Greenberg is a movie of throwaway one-liners and evocatively nondescript locations. The style is observational, the drama is understated, and, when the time comes, it knocks you out with the subtlest of badda-booms.