Most American filmmakers (and all Hollywood suits) tend to be overly concerned with whether a movie’s protagonist is sufficiently “likable.” Will audiences empathize? Will people relate? Noah Baumbach, both to his credit and to a fault, does not suffer from this problem. Since he re-emerged on the scene five years ago with The Squid and the Whale, his characters have grown exponentially more obnoxious with each successive picture, to diminishing returns. Jeff Daniels’ preening, bullying narcissist in Squid was a pussycat compared to Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding, and now Margot’s compulsive emotional abuse seems almost benign compared to the steaming cauldron of rage, bitterness and contempt that is the title character of Greenberg. At this rate, Baumbach’s next movie will simply be 90-plus minutes of some famous actor walking up to total strangers on the street and punching them square in the face.
Certainly Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) wishes he had that kind of moxie. Instead, he spends much of his copious free time—after suffering a recent nervous breakdown, he’s deliberately “doing nothing” for a while—drafting painfully verbose letters of complaint to newspapers and retail stores, as if striving for the Nobel Prize in Churlishness. Invited to stay at his rich brother’s house in LA while the family is on vacation, Greenberg flies out from New York, but his inability to drive means that he has to rely on his brother’s young, somewhat flighty personal assistant, Florence (mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig), as an errand girl and chauffeur. Despite their age difference and wildly contrasting temperaments, the two begin a tentative romance, but since Greenberg treats Florence with roughly the same consideration and respect that Hitler showed to Poland, any sort of happy ending looks as if it’ll be exceedingly hard-won.
Which would be fine, provided we could even conceive of these two people finding happiness together. In Baumbach’s previous two films, his ego monsters inflicted their wounds upon family members, which meant that the playing field was at least somewhat level—if you’ve spent your entire life around someone, however dickish, you’ve managed to build up immunity. Florence, on the other hand, as portrayed by Gerwig, is such a passive, horror-enabling doormat that she belongs in protective custody. To keep her in Greenberg’s orbit, Baumbach cooks up a subplot in which the absent family’s dog gets sick, necessitating trips to the vet and so forth, but it’s still impossible to buy (or stomach) her continuing interest in him after, for example, he abruptly ends a date by saying, “That’s the stupidest anecdote I’ve ever heard,” and walking out the door. Maybe people that pathetic really exist, but I don’t care to see them celebrated.
Shame, because when it’s not trying to be a perverse romantic comedy, Greenberg makes some acute observations about encroaching middle age and the slow death of ambition. The movie’s funniest and most perceptive scene finds Greenberg holding court at a house party thrown by his teenage niece, quizzing the kids about their sex lives and insisting that there’s no better music to snort cocaine by than Duran Duran. And Rhys Ifans, as Greenberg’s best friend and former bandmate, makes a nicely laid-back foil, urging the guy whose diva attitude killed their shot at a record contract years earlier to “finally embrace the life you never planned on.” But the beyond-dysfunctional relationship between Greenberg and Florence pushes everything else aside, and Baumbach doesn’t seem to fully grasp just how grotesque their prospective union seems. With this film, he’s dug well past “unlikable” and struck “insupportable.”