If you are someone who goes to the movies to spend time with characters you’d actually like to spend time with in real life, you probably don’t go to Noah Baumbach movies. Greenberg—like Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale before it—is populated by unpleasant, messed-up people who are kind of fascinating to observe, even though you’re probably thrilled they don’t actually exist.
Florence (Greta Gerwig) is actually the relatively sane one here, and she’s still sort of a mess—a young woman who fits low-self-esteem sexual encounters between hours working as a personal assistant for a wealthy Los Angeles family. When her employers go on a trip abroad, the man of the house’s 40-year-old brother, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), comes from New York to stay in the house. He’s recently back on the streets after a breakdown and a stint in a mental hospital—and it doesn’t take much time to get a sense of why.
Stiller has generally been a one-note actor, but here Baumbach connects his impotent-rage shtick to something concrete. As Roger circulates among his former friends in L.A.—including a recovering-addict pal (Rhys Ifans) who endures Roger’s many neuroses—we get a picture of a guy who had a shot at success and happiness 15 years ago but blew it. And in a terrific scene where Roger finds himself surrounded by 20-somethings at a party, he lashes out at stand-ins for his own youthful arrogance.
It’s a bit harder to get a grip on Florence, who’s set up by Baumbach to be more of a co-lead in her awkward romance with Roger. Gerwig gives her a sad-faced appeal despite her doormat personality, but it’s less interesting watching her fumble with her life than watching Roger take out on her his frustrations over winding up as aimless at 40 as he was at 25.
Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans