Meet Roger Greenberg, the most unlikable anti-hero in recent movie memory. The title character in Noah Baumbach’s sneaky low-key comedy GREENBERG is grouchy, obnoxious, disrespectful, and makes life miserable for everyone he comes into contact with. While such an unsympathetic lead character might have completely undermined the entertainment value of a lesser film, GREENBERG manages to be a winner and it’s a testament to the performance of Ben Stiller as Greenberg that we still sort of root for this jerk despite his unpleasantness. Even better, he’s given a love interest in the form of Greta Gerwig, an indie darling so fresh-faced and likeable, her presence manages to balance the film and sweeten Roger Greenberg’s sour.
When we first meet GREENBERG’s Roger , he’s a 40ish loser fresh out of a mental hospital for unspecified treatment house-sitting for his successful younger brother Phil (Chris Messina) at Phil’s upscale L.A. home. Roger spends his days writing furious letters of complaint to various businesses about perceived sleights and occasionally hangs out with his old band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who’s never quite forgiven Roger for blowing a record contract year earlier with his combustible personality. Also on hand is Roger’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story with husband Baumbach), for whom he still carries a torch though she’s now a happily married mom. Central to GREENBERG is Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phil’s 25-year old nanny/housekeeper, a pretty aspiring singer who lacks self-esteem and sleeps with men she barely knows because it’s easier than saying no. Roger and Greta meet when she comes by to watch Phil’s dog (since watching the house and the dog would be too much for Roger) and, after a most uncomfortably awkward sex scene, these two lost souls connect. Unable to drive, Roger is dependent on Florence to shuttle him around L.A. The dark cloud that follows him proves to be attractive to Florence and they hit it off in a way neither of them could have predicted. Thanks to her, Roger sees that there may well be a way out of his midlife crisis.
On its surface, GREENBERG is one of those off-center dime-a-dozen independent films that likes to substitute character quirks for substance. But Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) has an undeniable knack for realistic dialog and so well illustrates lifelike details of behavior that he makes this rather directionless story smart, honest, and shrewd. Ben Stiller shines in what has to be considered his first serious role since PERMANENT MIDNIGHT in 1998. The humor derives from the situations and certainly not from his behavior as Roger’s unrelenting narcissism might wear down viewers who enter the theatre expecting DODGEBALL Stiller (though for me the funniest moment was when he phones Beth, her young daughter answers, and he asks “Is this…a child?”). My favorite scene is an unexpected party attended by young friends of his niece in a house where Roger is the only ‘adult’. This gives him an opportunity to snort some coke, drink some booze and come alive, and of course he makes a complete fool of himself. As good as Stiller is its Greta Gerwig, with her natural beauty and full range of emotions who’s the real star of GREENBERG. (I’d never of heard of this actress, looked her up on IMDB and was surprised to find she costarred in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, a film I had watched on DVD the night before!). Gerwig is awkward in her own, much more endearing way and she convincingly solves the mystery of why someone like Florence would be attracted to the heap of dysfunction that is Greenberg. Director Baumbach’s pacing is leisurely and his approach candid, bordering on deadpan and not much really happens in GREENBERG (the dog’s illness provides much of the drama). It may be hard to care about Roger Greenberg but Baumbach and his cast have somehow made spending two hours with this cantankerous prick a good time at the movies.