Since Greenberg indulges its titular’s protagonist’s creative slump, it’s hard not to judge it as a victim of its own indulgence. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s recent films, including his collaborations with Wes Anderson, have all leaned one way or another in favor of their wracked protagonists’ precious neuroses. But somehow Greenberg feels different. Baumbach’s latest directorial effort does not gravitate around the tug-of-war struggle between dissolution or unification of a singular relationship like The Life Aquatic (father and son), The Squid and the Whale (father and mother), Margot at the Wedding (sister and sister) or Fantastic Mr. Fox (husband and wife). It presents Roger Greenberg’s (Ben Stiller) visit to LA as a paradigm-shifting event. The characters that enter and exit his life are meant to be taken as symptomatic of how he lost his mojo. As with Baumbach’s last two directorial efforts, the moment for decisive, radical, life-changing action has already passed, leaving Greenberg to figure out what he still can do. Being self-indulgent in this instance is not just defensible—it’s a function of Greenberg’s story.
At this stage of his life, Roger Greenberg, a New York refugee, does not know how to treat people like people anymore. Instead, he obliviously projects his own irrational assumptions onto them and winds up suffering for it. Now, house-sitting for his wealthy brother (Chris Messina), Greenberg struggles to break out of a years-long rut by building a dog house, rekindling his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and flirting with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant/baby-sitter/on-call intern. But it’s in Greenberg’s character to not be able to establish a lasting connection with any of these things or people. This is less irksome in the film’s rocky beginning, when his character-defining traits are overwhelmed by affected tics, like his tendency to write but never send letters of complaint to faceless corporate entities like Starbucks or his nervous habit of over-applying chap stick. When it comes time for him to realize that he can and should get serious about the possibilities that L.A. presents him, it’s obvious that Greenberg’s still using people to get his shit together.
This is especially disconcerting when it comes to Greenberg’s relationship with Florence. As a character, she’s not developed beyond her equally limited understanding of Greenberg and is treated strictly as a function of his story. Gerwig’s unassuming performance matches Stiller’s constant ebb-and-flow histrionics but that only confirms her character’s role as a foil to Stiller’s. Even Ifans’s characteristically exhausted expression of pained serenity only serves to give Greenberg everything he wants now that he’s finally started to realize that he’s never known what he wants. Greenberg has the sting and the wit of Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale but its much too soft around the edges to have a lasting impact.
Note: James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem fame, supplies a soundtrack comprised mostly of three or four main leitmotifs that, like Gerwig and Ifans’s performances, is incredibly distracting. It draws too much attention to itself and, in a film that continually gravitates in and around Stiller’s character, that’s more than a little frustrating.