"Right now, I'm really trying to do nothing for a while," says the title character of Noah Baumbach's painfully funny — and sometimes just painful — Greenberg.
At 40, with a failed music career and an intimate knowledge of anti-depressants, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, in a quietly complicated performance) has fled hometown New York for the comfort of his brother's Los Angeles abode to recover from a breakdown. The brother and his wife and kids are off to Vietnam on vacation, and Greenberg can stay with the German shepherd and the pool.
He promises to build a doghouse. He even has a tool belt, and he buys some wood.
And then he stares into the middle distance, or sits at a table writing letters of complaint to Starbucks, to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to American Airlines. These are major accomplishments in his day.
Greenberg, then, is about what happens when this one-man pity party meets his brother's and sister-in-law's personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig).
In her 20s and experiencing her own shoulder-shrugging tremors of ennui, Florence is pretty in a lumbering sort of way, and the moment when Greenberg and Florence go back to her place for a late-night drink has to be one of the most unromantic and uncomfortable sex scenes in the history of motion pictures. It's a ballet of wrongheaded aggression, numb compliance, awkward miscues — and then it's over. Ouch.
A lot of Greenberg is like that scene: lacerating, keenly observed. Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale looked at the dissolution of a marriage from the perspective of a super-bright teenage son, and whose Margot at the Wedding offered a symphony of psychological cruelty and familial pain, is at it again. There's comedy here, to be sure, but it's steeped in neuroses and narcissism.
It's easy to want to lose patience with Greenberg and his mopey, medicated irony, but Stiller's portrayal is so acutely real, Baumbach's writing so cutting and specific, and the work of Gerwig (of Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead) so seemingly effortless that Greenberg makes you, if not happy to stick around, then at least agreeable to the idea.
The film, too, offers a view of Los Angeles that's not the typical East Coast filmic jeer. There's storied Hollywood watering hole of Musso & Frank, the avant-garde art galleries, funky mike-night bars and walkable neighborhoods.
If you count yourself among the ranks who loathed Margot at the Wedding, steer clear of Greenberg. But if you have an appetite for intelligent, sardonic storytelling — for a glimpse into the lives of people you come to believe exist beyond the parameters of a screen fiction — then Greenberg is well worth getting to know.