Is there anything more pathetic than a middle-aged man who lists among his most winning attributes a record deal his college band almost had, the ability to make a killer mix CD and wearying psuedo-wit and cynicism about the modern world? A cynicism so far-reatching, I might add, that almost nothing escapes its scope, not even the ailing family dog and definitely nothing post-1979 which includes all music, all technologies and all people who came into being after this year. The aforementioned ‘almost nothing’ means GREENBERG, of course, the only person to escape his critical eye.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) has just completed a stay at some kind of mental rest home and moves to LA to housesit for his successful younger brother who can afford a 6-week family vacation. His intent, he perpetually bemoans, is to “do nothing,” and he succeeds, for the most part, though he does manage to start a faltering relationship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant and reenter the lives of some of his old college friends. In all of these relationships Greenberg reigns supreme. He’s a bully to Florence and dominating over old college bud Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who takes most of his egoism with a long, quiet face. The only person from his past to successfully turn him down is Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his college girlfriend who is not interested in the least in rekindling a flame she’s clearly put well behind her.
So how to make a story about an obnoxiously self-obsessed, staggeringly clueless guy not only worth watching but also entertaining, funny and sad? If anyone can do it it’s Noah Baumbach whose past efforts THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007) have proven his ability to capture the nuances of human relationships in a realistic and sensitive way. He has a knack for choosing the right details about a character to show, like when Ivan is left at the dinner table alone and mumbles ‘thank you’ after each glass of water the waiter refills or the way Greta sings along to Wings when she’s alone in her apartment. The most endearing part of this film is its realism, which is why Baumbach, thank goodness, does not have Greenberg suddenly discover something about himself significant enough for him to want to turn his life around. That’s not realistic. Rather, there are a series of very small interactions and confrontations that could be interpreted as meaningful were Greenberg to take the time to interpret them, but Greenberg is too busy trying to do nothing. We don’t know if he will ever resign himself to doing something again – probably not – but it seems as if he might just resign himself to being okay with that.