Since writer-director Noah Baumbach came out with The Squid and the Whale five years ago, imitators have have tried to emulate his style. Yet each copy was lighter and smudgier than the last until we finally got handed the hateful Smart People. Not his fault, of course, but it's been annoying nonetheless. With Greenberg, Baumbach picked Ben Stiller, an actor best known lately for the Night at the Museum franchise, to play Roger Greenberg, his self-absorbed slacker protagonist. It's reasonable enough then to be suspicious of how this pairing might pan out given the familiarity we all have with Baumbach's formula.
But, together, Baumbach and Stiller have come up with a movie that's above and beyond all that both have done before and a movie for which you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be quite different. The trailer suggests a far more ` positive character arc for Greenberg, one in which he, as a laconic 40 year old, finally gets a handle on his life through a series of meaningful interactions involving younger women, cute dogs and a similarly laconic, self-absorbed friend played by Rhys Ifans. The trailer trades on the Baumbach template - packing in the dry witticisms, the quirky moments of candor - and assumes we are now trained enough to understand the man-child as a heroic figure, a character to envy and admire for his freedom, humor and undisclosed source of income.
It's hard not to expect a man-child character to come good. Our culture really does encourage never, ever growing up and we expect to see this rewarded in films. Of course, this is how it works, because if we stay needy, greedy infants we will buy more stuff. But here, Stiller's man-child is truly childish - petty, selfish, whiny - and quite unlikable. His act is not charming, it is not endearing and it is not rewarded. Baumbach has us hope we can get behind the guy for maybe ten minutes, before we realize that's not the case. Ben Stiller takes the stereotype and ignores it, putting out his best performance ever.
Greenberg stumbles around with Florence, his brother's youthful assistant, aggressively working on "doing nothing" and being abusive to everyone who cares to spend time with him. He was once in a band that was offered a record deal, which he was responsible for screwing up. He's recently had some kind of a nervous breakdown during which he convinced himself he couldn't use his legs. So far, so seemingly typical for a Baumbach film. Yet Baumbach has come up with something refreshing once again. For one thing, he defuses our expectations of the dialogue - mixing in two "mumblecore" actors. It makes the awkwardness seem shiny and new.
Baumbach sets our sympathy, or what we can keep a hold of, with the Greenberg family assistant, Florence, who is instructed to take care of Roger while her employers are off opening a hotel in Vietnam. Florence, played by Greta Gerwig (from the mumblecore movies LOL and Hannah Takes The Stairs), is the first person we see.
The trailer and the Baumbach template would have us believe that Florence will fit this mold, and save Greenberg from himself. Once we realize she isn't what The Onion's Nathan Rabin has called a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," things start to get quite interesting. And funny, really funny. And also utterly black-hole depressing.
Starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated R.