In Theaters: Greenberg

Movieline Score:

Another entry in Noah Baumbach's rough guide to the modern American narcissist, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a kingdom unto himself. Terminally self-conscious and yet brutally un-self-aware, stunted and solipsistic to the point of generating his own toxic atmosphere, he is -- or should be -- the cautionary middle-aged male. At 41 he is recovering from the nervous breakdown that his distant ancestors Holden Caulfield and Hal Incandenza had upon coming of age. Greenberg is of that generation that forgot to officially acknowledge adulthood's arrival -- whether with a child or a career or a drop-in at an asylum -- and the reckoning is humiliating indeed. Recently released from a hospital in New York and minding his brother Phillip's Los Angeles compound while he and his family are off in Vietnam (one in a series of oblique and overt '70s references, the idea of a young man traveling to Saigon to build a hotel is played for one of the film's typically sidelong laughs), Greenberg is tasked with some basics: build a doghouse; see old friends; try not to be such a five-alarm asshole.

That last one is not officially on the list, but it is the covert agenda Baumbach sets for his titular protagonist; once acquainted with the breadth of Greenberg's billowing ego, even the infinitesimal progress made by movie's end seems unlikely. Easier to like but no less formidable is Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant to the LA Greenbergs. Genuinely good-natured and yet prone to a concerted affability -- she's so agreeable as to be completely inscrutable -- Florence is a young woman navigating her own need with the kind of guileless curiosity she brings to everything she does. From the first shots of the film, which hold her in tight profile as she maneuvers calmly through LA traffic, Florence is found to live quite naturally, if somewhat ambi-directionally, in the present. Greenberg, by contrast, is trapped in the dilapidated quarters of a lightly sketched history (after leaving LA a failed musician he became a carpenter), and roams the grounds of his past like a deposed monarch.

Brought together by the care and feeding of the family dog, Mahler, and the endless errand run that seems to be life in LA, Florence and Greenberg make it through a generic initial exchange without ever really acknowledging each other: it's perfect. Even better is the children's party sequence that reunites Greenberg with former bandmates Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Eric (Mark Duplass), and old girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also conceived the story with husband Baumbach). More successful at translating Greenberg's anxious self-direction than his obsessive ChapStick use and a letter-writing habit (he can't have an interaction with the world without taking pen to paper to protest it) is Baumbach's deftly impressionistic cutting between the strained, pro forma conversations Greenberg has with the people who used to shape his life. The evident resentment of his bandmates (he pulled a major boner at a critical moment in their career) and Beth's complete de-investment in their relationship are brought to bear later in the film with similarly gratifying skill.

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