If Noah Baumbach has a singular skill — and this is not to suggest the talented writer/director is regulated to just one — it’s his ability to render somewhat hateful and self-hating types in their full blown glory. He’s not one to try and pass a character’s foibles off as ‘charming’ or ‘eccentric’ a la James Brooks, he reveals them for what they truly are: vulnerable narcissists. And, in doing so, he allows his audience to form their own opinions about them.
The titular hero of his latest film, played by Ben Stiller, follows such Baumbach luminaries as Jeff Daniels’ Bernard in The Squid and the Whale, Eric Stolz’ Vince from Mr. Jealousy, and Nicole Kidman’s lead in Margot at the Wedding: Broken people unable to abate their self-loathing towards every living thing around them. Here, Roger Greenberg, recently recovered from a breakdown, goes to stay at his extremely successful brother’s L.A. mansion for a few weeks in order to do exactly “nothing.” With his brother and his family off on an extended vacation, Roger has the run of the place, along with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s twentysomething assistant, who spends most of her time running around L.A. buying vegetables and picking up dry cleaning for the family. In short order, they sort of hook up, then sort of avoid each other; then hook up again, and so on. Florence finds Roger fascinating; he finds her “somewhat” attractive. Among other things, in Roger’s return to L.A., he attempts to conjure up old feelings for his ex-girlfriend (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also contributed the story), and reconnect with his former bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he shares a kind of friendship.
In one scene, hanging out at a party with a bunch of achingly young 20-year-olds, Roger cops to his fear of their generation. They seem too pampered and coddled, he thinks, which makes them mean. Hard to believe that the writer behind those lines was himself a perplexing twentysomething when he made his first feature, Kicking and Screaming, back in 1995. As played by Stiller, with a kind of messy grown-out pompadour of unkempt locks, Roger is both a creature of self-absorption and a proponent of self-actualization: He spends a good deal of his time scribbling out letters of complaint to everything from American Airlines to a pet taxi service he found wanting.
For her part, Gerwig, a veteran of the mumblecore movement of lo-fi DIY relationship films, is captivating. We don’t quite understand her attraction to such a figure as Roger, but we buy the fact that she does, even though they fail to quite connect in almost all of their interactions. As always, Baumbach’s sharp, acute dialogue reveals both more and less than what his characters intend, he might be unafraid to show his characters’ failings but he understands the things they so desperately want to keep hidden from view.
This BD release has some key features, including an L.A. walkthrough with writer/director Baumbach, a making of piece and an interesting segment on some of Baumbach’s literary inspirations for the titular character and the screenplay in general.
Greenberg [Blu-ray] at Amazon!
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.comand his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.