Roger Greenberg, as written by Noah Baumbach and played by Ben Stiller, is a shambles of a man. Mentally stalled at the age of 25 when he was at the peak of his success, he now finds himself turning 41 with nothing to show for the intervening sixteen years. His personality has curdled into a toxic combination of hostility, arrogance, and thoughtless cruelty, and he views himself as under constant siege from a world that assaults him at every turn with its bad taste and offensive mainstream values. The film regards Roger Greenberg from a variety of angles, and ponders whether there is any hope for him to glean some degree of happiness from life or to form some semblance of a functioning relationship with another human being. It's hard to be optimistic on either count. Imagine As Good As It Gets if it dropped the winks about how clever and cuddly Jack is and instead focused on how appalling his behavior was, and you'll get a good idea of what Greenberg is like.
Like This - Minus the Bullshit
Ah, but I can hear the cries of moviegoers across the country already. "Why should I care about Greenberg, let alone give over 107 minutes of my time to spend with him? I go to the movies to be entertained not to be forced into the company of the kind of guy I spend my life avoiding." I suppose it's a fair point. I am tempted to mention that most moviegoers have no qualms whatsoever about films featuring murderers, rapists, torturers, and Nazis, but I don't want to be snide, and in those cases audiences can be reasonably certain that those characters will be blown to bits by the time the credits roll.
I guess it comes down to why you go to the movies in the first place. If you are not afraid of being provoked by a film, and you see the worth in humanity portrayed truthfully on screen, no matter how sharply it veers into unpleasantness, then Greenberg is well worth your time. To put it another way: If Greenberg is the type of film you like, then you will like Greenberg. I sure did.
The movie begins with Greenberg arriving in LA from New York after agreeing to babysit his brother's dog while his brother's family are vacationing in Asia. Ostensibly, his brother has hired him to build a doghouse, but we sense that is merely an excuse to nudge Greenberg towards reentering society, an idea he violently resists. He spends his first day in town staring warily out at the world through the venetian blinds and hand writing angry missives detailing his contempt for such targets as Starbucks and Mayor Bloomberg.
Stiller is fantastic in the role. I'd say it was a surprise, but anyone familiar his work in Permanent Midnight or Your Friends and Neighbors knew that he had this depth in him, if only he could stop goofing around with CGI dinosaur bones long enough to use it. I don't think it's a stretch to call it his best work to date, and his first full-bodied, head-to-toes performance since The Royal Tenenbaums. He and writer/director Baumbach deserve enormous credit for never softening the character or begging for the audience's sympathy. Yet without excusing Greenberg's often monstrous behavior, Stiller manages to show how clearly it all stems from his overwhelming vulnerability. Greenberg is so obviously one big open wound that we hesitate to condemn him completely.
We learn more about him. It is mentioned that Greenberg had a recent stint in a mental hospital and there are some vague references to a nervous breakdown. When he was in his twenties he was in a band that had its shot at the big time blown entirely because of his pig-headed behavior. Since his band went belly-up he moved to New York City and found work as a carpenter. To be back in LA surrounded by success and people from his past is non-stop torture for him and the mere act of making small talk at a children's birthday party seems enough to destroy whatever fragile grip on reality he's managed.
Into Greenberg's life come two people who represent an opportunity for normal social interaction, opportunities he will blow repeatedly and thoroughly. Rhys Ifans plays the last friend from his glory days who will tolerate him and Greta Gerwig plays the brother's young assistant, who Greenberg finds himself attracted to. Stiller's character wastes no time sabotaging both relationships.
Gerwig gives a breakout performance as a girl who is sweet and pretty, but who could kindly be described as having a self-esteem problem, but would more accurately be described as a doormat. She is directionless save for a half-hearted attempt at a singing career - her singing sounds as if she's apologizing for imposing on the listener. Greenberg is the last person she needs in her life because if she is too willing to let people walk all over her, Greenberg is too willing to do the walking. If anyone is ever going to get her to stand up for herself it's this guy. Ifans is also quite good in a subdued performance as a man with a deep well of understanding for his friend, but whose patience is not bottomless and does not equal forgiveness.
I fear I'm making Greenberg sound like an endurance test for the audience. It's not. What it is, is a delicate and often very funny look at certain types of people. Baumbach doesn't force them into a standard plot but is content to follow them where they lead him, never pushing for laughs. He clearly loves his characters otherwise he would not go out of his way to be so brutally honest with them. If we're being truthful I think a lot of us will recognize the behavior on screen, the difference being that most of us only behave that way in our worst moments and these characters make it a full time job.
There is a scene between Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh playing Greenberg's old flame from his glory days. Stiller clearly imagines it to be a date, hopefully the first of many and he is totally oblivious to the fact that Leigh considers it a duty to be endured for the sake of politeness and would like nothing more than to never see Stiller again. The timing and the choice of what is and isn't said is as beautifully observed as any scene you're likely to see this year at the movies. I find myself grateful to everyone involved for putting a scene like that on the screen. To do so is so much more challenging to do than to go for the easy marks, something this film never does.
Verdict: I'm a sucker for films like this - films that want only to document their characters as truthfully and with as much attention to detail as possible. I should also mention that Baumbach has developed substantially as a stylist from his previous films. He and his cinematographer Harris Savides capture Los Angeles vividly as a place and as a woozy state of mind. Greenberg should feature prominently in any discussion of the city on film from now on. It might not add up to a masterpieces but what Greenberg does it does very well and it deserves a wide audience. 8 out of 10