Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a prick. Everything central to the character, and to the movie, is contained in that sentence. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale), based on a story by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who has a small, and completely forgettable, role in the film), Greenberg is yet another attempt to center a movie around an unlikeable character. Joy.
After being recently released from a mental institution (for an undisclosed mental breakdown which involved the loss of his ability to walk) New Yorker Roger Greengberg travels to Los Angeles to house sit for his brother Phillip (Chris Messina), who has taken his family on six-week vacation to Vietnam.
The fragile Roger is immediately, and awkwardly, attracted to his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) who, in some ways, seems even more fragile and damaged than Greenberg himself. You may be able to guess where this is headed.
There are also storylines involving Roger’s best friend (Rhys Ifans) who he once screwed out of a music deal more than a decade ago, and his former girlfriend (Leigh) who has long since moved on. There’s also a few late scenes involving disruptive influence of Roger’s neice (Brie Larson) which are meant to be a catalyst to the film’s final act. However, none of these work as well as when the film centers the story around the (somewhat pathetic) relationship of Roger and Florence.
Roger is a selfish self-righteous prick who pushes everyone away. Florence is a needy clinger who will forgive seemingly any transgression. It’s a match made in heaven (or possibly purgatory).
I’ve been far less impressed than others with Baumbach’s tales (I hated Margot) and with Greenberg once again I found myself struggling to care for a schmuck of a main character who gives me absolutely no reason to do so. Roger isn’t a person who you might loathe or even hate, he’s just the selfish bastard who you would ignore at a party and never return his calls.
That isn’t to say Greenberg is a bad movie, it’s not. In fact the movie does have quite a bit to offer, even given the limitations of its story. Stiller proves more than capable of playing both the fragile and asshole sides of this damaged character, and Gerwig is terrific as the needy Florence who can’t give up on Greenberg even when she’s given every reason to.
Boiled down to its essence the film is basically As Good As It Gets, without the Hollywood trappings or charm. In some ways this a good thing. The natural feel of the characters and their fumbling interactions work to the film’s advantage. We also aren’t saddled with a roadtrip for a gay neighbor or have to deal with the genius of celebrity author.
Ben Stiller is a nice enough guy, but he simply doesn’t have the charisma of Jack Nicholson (who does?). And so Stiller’s Greenberg isn’t a dick we kind of like, he’s just a dick. And he’s not even a talented dick.
Much like Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg is the type of film that will wear on you the more you watch. Unlike Margot I think there is something here worth suffering through the experiences of the insufferable lead character. It won’t be a fun trip to the movies, but Greenberg will give you plenty to think about and discuss afterwards. There are far worse reasons to see a movie.