Film Review: GreenbergNoah Baumbach again investigates psychologically screwed-up people, although this time with much less comedic impact.
Noah Baumbach seems intent on laying his own distinctive claim to a territory already overcrowded with developers, that of adults swamped in disabling neuroses, bad behavior and self-absorption. You can add Jewish angst as well in the case of Greenberg.
While winning no points for originality, Baumbach and his co-conspirator in the script, Jennifer Jason Leigh—whom he directed in his previous examination of psychological trauma, Margot at the Wedding—have created an all-too-convincing portrait of a 40-year-old man in emotional freefall.
What they are unable to fully achieve is a means to make enough audience members care so that Greenberg might cross over to a wider viewership than a psychiatrists convention. Critical acclaim in certain circles may fuel modest box-office returns for Focus Features, since the movie is a brave one for both the filmmakers and their star, Ben Stiller.
The actor, of course, has made a comic career out of playing neurotic though sympathetic protagonists, but here the laughs peter out quickly. Roger Greenberg is just out of an extended stay in the hospital following a nervous breakdown, so his aimlessness and whining have a rather sad resonance.
Roger has returned to L.A., where he once had something of a career as a musician, from New York. He is staying in his successful brother's Hollywood Hills home while the family is on vacation. So he meets his brother's pretty assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig).
Talk about two lost souls finding each other. Florence aspires to be a singer despite minimal talent, but she is really at loose ends. She is much younger than Roger, though, so at least such confusions about life don't seem so pathetic.
The two struggle to start a romantic relationship, yet Roger fights it at every turn. It's as if he doesn't trust happiness. He can be so ugly that it's a wonder she even talks to him. Possibly she wouldn't accept that the Greenbergs' dog has taken sick and Roger, who doesn't even drive, is pretty helpless about things like getting the dog to the vet.
Roger does reach out to people in his past, former band-mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and ex-lover Beth (Leigh). Ivan is sympathetic but distracted by marital woes, while Beth has simply moved on.
Such is the repetitive nature of the story that the characters go in continual circles. Those circles do widen, though, so you gain a greater appreciation of the root cause of Roger's dysfunctional behavior. But understanding is one thing, sympathy another.
Stiller has rather successfully created an off-putting character of only slight charm and huge personality quirks. You're only too happy the guy is up there on the screen and not anywhere near your own life.
Meanwhile, Gerwig, a filmmaker-actor from the independent world, does much better on the empathy front. The messiness of her character's life feels correctable and she seems capable of regaining control. You wish Florence luck with Roger but hold no great expectations.
Baumbach and Leigh astutely observe the L.A. scene with keen insights into the myriad ways people can screw up their lives and never think to blame themselves. The city becomes an actual character here, but, alas, one that is no more likeable than any other in the movie. Tech credits shine in a movie that is talky yet somehow still cinematic.
-The Hollywood Reporter