- Directed and written by Noah Baumbach
- Starring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig
- Classification: 18A
Noah Baumbach may be the most writerly of American directors, taking the standard stuff of family dysfunction - middle-class divorce in The Squid and the Whale, sibling bickering in Margot at the Wedding - and giving it a literate push into novelistic terrain. Because he has a terrific ear for natural dialogue, even when his plots stray into cliché, his characters don't. Instead, they're stereotypes with nuance (much like all of us), which makes them easy to recognize and hard to resist. Greenberg is more of the same. In the tradition of novels by Bellow and Roth and Updike, it's another anti-heroic tale of the lost boy as a middle-aged man. The difference here is the setting - this time, our man/boy heads westward ho to fight his devils in the City of Angels.
True to that setting, the movie begins in smog and ends in clarity. Structurally, it's a romantic comedy but, again, Baumbach redeems the stock situations by layering in a little complexity. Consider the clever way he backs into the story, starting out not with the guy who lends the picture its title, but with the girl who gives it something far more important - its heart. In those early frames, we learn a lot about Florence (Greta Gerwig). At 25, she's pretty but not quite beautiful, smart but hardly brilliant, a college grad perhaps underemployed as the "personal assistant" to the Greenberg clan - their kid-raiser, their dog-walker, their grocery-shopper and, today, their luggage-packer. Seems the American family is shipping out to Vietnam - the tourists' new tour of duty.
Flying in from New York to house-sit is Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the family's black-sheep brother who's fresh off his own tour - an institutionalized stint for a "nervous breakdown." Once upon a time, he was a musician in an ultimately failed rock band, and, even at 41, his past remains his present. The guy is an emotional child - his tongue may be caustic, but everything else is all fear and narcissistic trembling. Inevitably, then, he tries to reconnect with friends from his youth, with Ivan a former bandmate (Rhys Ifans) and Beth an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Knowing his vulnerability, the two are gentle with him, at least until firmness is called for. They've done what he hasn't, and what every grownup must eventually do. Ivan puts it nicely: "It's huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on."
This leaves Roger to wander alone in the crowd, palely loitering through the movie's set-piece series of party sequences. Happily for us, that caustic streak makes him an occasionally amusing guide. Invited to a backyard barbeque with his own fortysomething crowd, he squirms on the periphery, but then cuts loose with this observational gem: "All the men out here are dressed like children and all the children like superheroes." Later, when a further party breaks out with his 20-year-old niece and her pals, he shouts across the gap at the Facebook generation: "There's a confidence in you guys that's terrifying." Of course, to the terminally childish, youth always looks so mature.
Yes, there's a gaunt, hollow-eyed, truth-speaking innocence about this lost boy, both in the manner that Baumbach has written him and the way that Stiller plays him - he's always annoying but, sometimes, he's insightfully annoying. Less credible is the Roger/Florence romance in the comedy, which, like those party scenes, emerges as a series of encounters - fumbling sexual encounters, beginning with her heavy-petting apology ("I'm wearing kind of an ugly bra") and culminating in his post-coital confession ("I should be with a divorced 38-year-old who has teenage sons and low expectations about life"). Sorry, but this doesn't even qualify as amour fou - amour phooey, maybe.
What saves it, however, is Gerwig. The love story ain't credible, but her performance is, perfectly capturing a young woman who doesn't lack confidence so much as a sense of self. Consequently, she keeps trying on different personas, a super-organizer by day, a bar cruiser by night. Mainly, though, Florence suffers from a passivity that makes her overgenerous, offering both her mind and her body at discount rates. Yet she too is insightful, seeing Roger as one of the "hurt people," but seeing also that "hurt" doubles in him as an adjective and a verb - he suffers and he causes suffering.
In many ways, Florence should be the title figure here - her character type is less familiar, more intriguing. Unfortunately, in the final frames, the screenplay gives Roger his epiphany and, in so doing, robs Florence of hers. Maybe that's why this attempt at a happy ending feels inadvertently sad - it's one cliché that Baumbach can't redeem.