written and directed by Noah Baumbach
starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans
“I’m trying not to do anything,” Roger Greenberg, with a seeming shrug, informs each person who inquires what he’s doing with his life on his dreary visit to hazy Los Angeles. A bitter ex-musician visiting his well-off and trendy brother — who’s taking his family on vacation to Vietnam of all places — Greenberg is a staunch New York carpenter just coming off of an indeterminate stay at a mental hospital. He’s defiantly proud and strangely unembarrassed by this declaration of the dismal state of his life, fiercely brandishing it like a sword whenever accosted by those he deems threats to his preferred aimlessness. Such presumed threats include the caustically cool twentysomethings who carelessly consume cocktails of coke, pills, and booze and take spontaneous trips to hip locales just to ensure their own hipness; the estranged and sad-eyed best friend (a beautifully pained and patient Rhys Ifans) who has grown up and apart from him, even as Greenberg himself stubbornly refuses to age and mature; the idolized ex-girlfriend who has married, divorced, and so moved on and beyond him that she, in one of the film’s most uncomfortably agonizing scenes, cannot manage to recall a single moment from their history together that he so clearly treasures; and finally, the younger, charmingly irresolute assistant, who genuinely — and quite bafflingly — likes him despite his best and most intense efforts to make her feel otherwise.
Greenberg is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest in his patented string of highly intellectual meanderings full of difficult characters expressing their personal pain by violently thrusting it upon others, all the while feigning self-deprecation. Sisters savagely squabble and cruelly manipulate each other in Margot at the Wedding, and in The Squid and the Whale, his most acutely painful and darkly droll work, we experience a bitter and painful divorce through the perspectives of two damaged sons who startlingly mirror their parents’ aggressive pretensions and sharply cruel wit. While none of his films could ever be mistaken as plot-driven, Baumbach loosens his grip on his characters even more so than usual in Greenberg. He lovingly allows Roger to digressively funnel his unfocused energy into hilariously articulate complaint letters to American Airlines and Starbucks (its “attempt to manufacture culture out of fast-food coffee… sucks”) and Florence, Roger’s young and listless love interest, to drift quietly from art gallery opening to open mic night to one-night stand.
As Greenberg, a low-key (and totally fantastic) Ben Stiller casually slings the sharpest of insults when (he believes himself to be) provoked, but mostly, this keen disdain is meant for himself, and the self-awareness that Stiller infuses into the zingers is painfully obvious and remarkably acute. But it’s in the moments sans dialogue that Stiller nails Greenberg’s so-slight-you-could-miss-it-if-you-blink vulnerability: surrounded by joyful children at a party, he awkwardly shuffles his feet and aloofly looks to the sky for fear of connection, or when he struggles to stay afloat whilst pathetically dog-paddling across his brother’s pool. Despite these super-brief moments and Greenberg’s signature defense that “hurt people hurt people,” Baumbach still doesn’t fully expect us to sympathize with this outwardly selfish man-child who only confesses affection when assisted with a little cocaine courage. So in the final moments, what was building rather slowly toward the harsh realization that we simply must accept that life never turns out the way we expect it to, the film veers suddenly into a strange kind of rom-com territory, Baumbach-style. It’s only when Greenberg finally gets a clue and makes a mad dash for happiness that we realize, despite all of his contemptuousness, intentional belittling, and self-imposed isolation, we’ve actually been rooting for him along. Churlish behavior and seemingly indifferent assertions aside, Roger Greenberg was never really not doing anything; he was simply learning — in his own painstakingly guarded and grudging way — to embrace the unexpected life. In Greenberg, Noah Baumbach has once again created a hard-to-love character, that when all is said and done, we can’t help but love.