March 26, 2010, Austin American-Statesman
Ben Stiller looks gaunt and shrunken in “Greenberg,” Noah Baumbach’s bilious comedy of discomfort that isn’t afraid to let its tender side show, if only in stingy glances. Stiller isn’t a tall man to begin with, but his physical presence here is rumpled, crumpled, matching his character’s interior life, that of a guy hitting his 40s with rancor and confusion. He’s in a stunted state. Even next to the movie’s German shepherd he looks small.
This is Stiller stripped down and vulnerable, his jester’s suit swapped for an outdated sweater that screams — no, mumbles — inertia. Stiller’s darker side, hinted at in some of his sad-sack comic roles (“Flirting with Disaster,” “The Heartbreak Kid”), emerges ready to rumble, snipping and gnashing at the world like a less smug Larry David. It’s as funny as it is pathetic, a portrait of a guy who’s barely tolerated because he can barely tolerate himself.
Stiller plays Roger Greenberg in “Greenberg,” Baumbach’s alert and wise meditation on early-midlife disappointment and the drawbacks of being a jerk. The movie’s squirmy accuracy bears the pained specificity of autobiography, like the writer-director’s coming-of-age saga “The Squid and the Whale” and indulgently dysfunctional “Margot at the Wedding,” tragicomedies whose emotional violence is slightly offset by the ouchy humor mined from neurotic extremes.
Fresh off a nervous breakdown in New York, like an aging Holden Caulfield, Roger has come to his rich brother’s home in Los Angeles to house-sit while the family is on vacation. His goal is to actively “do nothing” except catch up with friends (the great Rhys Ifans is one of them) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the story with Baumbach), none of whom especially wants to catch up with Roger after some bitter fallouts in the past.
Roger makes a reluctant connection with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a frowzy yet comely young woman who comes to the house to feed the dog. It seems unlikely she would fall for the prickly, off-putting Roger, who is almost 20 years her senior. But Florence is herself a damaged flower. She moves with an irresistible gawkiness, a kind of fatigued self-awareness, and speaks in a voice of breathy boredom.
Like many heartbreakers, Florence doesn’t realize what a knock-out she is. Her beauty is a mystery to her, and she doesn’t know how to present it. When Roger and she hook up for the first time — a cover-your-eyes comedy of errors — Florence apologizes. “I get kind of nerdy” during sex, she says.
This is Gerwig’s first major role after a series of micro-budget mumblecore movies (“Baghead,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”), and she’s terrific — affectless and luminous, acutely attuned to how Florence’s insecurities inform her speech, mannerisms and movement.
She’s the optimistic heart of the story to Stiller’s gloomy soul. His existential crisis is about worthlessness, whacking that midlife wall of diminished ambition and shriveled hope and walking about dazed. He’s a human bruise in a constant wince. He pushes Florence away.
“I should be with a divorced 38-year-old with teenage kids and low expectations in life,” he tells her. (“Normal stuff is really hard for him,” she tells her friends.) Theirs, at best, is a fretful romance, and it’s fascinating.
The later films of Baumbach, including the poignant, almost perfect “Greenberg,” are told with the granular realism of a short story in The New Yorker. They’re hermetic, mercilessly personal, savagely honest, all of which passes as a type of morose sophistication. They feel messy and rich.
Baumbach, also in his early 40s, shoots with a homely naturalism that’s both shaggy and invisibly fussy. He’s a hip humanist with a taste for bile and an eye and ear for people not getting along. Yet he wants things to work out. That takes work, brute emotional toil between bodies. His movies are sincere and never jokey. The uncomfortable laughter they generate can seem like snark, but actually it’s high drama.