“Greenberg,” the new film from “Squid and the Whale” director Noah Baumbach, is the kind of navel gazer where upper middle class people spend a great deal of time wondering what they’re going to do with their lives. The movie sees Ben Stiller in “master thespian” mode playing the title role; a character so disagreeable he makes Larry David seem like Tinkerbelle.
In this story of Yuppie angst Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is fresh out of treatment for depression. Determined to “try and do nothing for a while,” he takes on the easiest job he can find—house sitting for his brother while his sibling is on business in Vietnam. It should be six easy, breezy weeks, but nothing in this guy’s life is easy breezy. Between a sick dog, an alienated best friend and his brother’s assistant Florence (played by mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig), he is reduced to a pile of misanthropic neurosis. Fighting off happiness wherever it may appear in his miserable life he alternately seduces and rejects Florence, playing her like a yoyo.
“Greenberg” benefits from Baumbach’s ear for dialogue and his insight into the human condition, it’s just too bad he wasted his talents on these two characters. Placing lines like “youth is wasted on the young… life is wasted on people,” in Roger’s mouth is clever and almost makes you like Roger, but Stiller plays him as such a self pitying sad sack; so socially awkward to the extreme with an anger management problem to boot, it is impossible to get onside with him. Stiller’s best work has been characterized by tetchy characters, but in his comedies the angry edges are smoothed out by an underlying sweetness he brings to his roles. “Greenberg,” the film and the character, are much more grown up than Stiller usually plays, but that maturity has brought with it an unpleasant edge.
In Florence Greta Gerwig has found an aimless character that seems to have stepped out of one of the low budget mumblecore films she is best known for. She’s a doormat with enough self awareness to realize that she “has to stop doing things because they feel good” but seems to be unable to find the inner strength to improve her life or her choice of men. Gerwig, in an extremely natural and unselfconscious performance, however, plays her with no small amount of charm. The way she strokes the dog with her foot as they wait for the vet to see them is touching, subtle and very real. It’s as un-Hollywood a performance as we’re ever likely to see in a Ben Stiller movie.
The most convincing relationship in the film occurs between Greenberg and Ivan ((Rhys Ifans) an old friend and former band mate. Their scenes overflow with the well worn familiarity of two old friends who have grown apart.
The trailer makes “Greenberg” look much more like a Ben Stiller comedy than it actually is. While well made and intermittently amusing it is more a rambling character study of the kind of people you would normally spend your time trying to avoid.