Noah Baumbach’s favorite terrain is deconstructing life’s emotional ups and downs with characters so narcissistic and self-delusional they make everyone on screen and off as uncomfortable as possible. With “Greenberg,” the writer-director who came to prominence with 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale” has reached new highs or new lows, depending on your point of view.
Baumbach’s latest stars Ben Stiller as 40-year-old Roger Greenberg, whose failed life is envisioned as a self-inflicted wound caused by a bad decision Roger made years ago. There is irony scattered all around him, but any comic relief it affords comes with such an undertow of repressed emotions and displaced anger that it all starts to feel more depressing than dramatic.
The nanny/personal assistant/possible girlfriend Florence, one of “Greenberg’s” few rays of light in Greta Gerwig’s good hands, puts it best. In trying to explain away yet another injury to her psyche about midway through the film, she says, “Hurt people hurt people.”
The same could be said of Baumbach’s relationship with his audience, with “Greenberg” his angriest, most conflicted and most painful movie yet. Stiller’s Roger is just out of a New York psychiatric treatment center where he’s been recovering from a breakdown. There’s nothing to suggest he’s made much headway.
He’s come to L.A. to ease back into the real world by housesitting for his brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), the epitome of everything Roger is not -- with a wife, kids, devoted dog, the booming international hotel business, the manse in the Hollywood Hills and the perfect assistant in Florence, which cannot be underestimated as a serious measure of success here.
With the house to himself for six weeks, Roger sets about redefining the rest of his life since, as we soon learn, the rock-star thing of his youth didn’t pan out and the carpentry gig is just temporary (Stiller in a tool belt and work boots is quite a sight).
Just how out of sync Roger is comes at every turn: He has trouble making conversation, other people annoy him, he doesn’t drive, his Bermuda shorts look like a last-minute buy from Old Navy, and he sets about building a doghouse for big, fluffy Mahler, who already has a complete run of the place inside and out. But then Roger’s life is all about dumb choices, ripple effects and being consigned to the doghouse at least in the metaphorical sense.
Redefining also seems to be what Stiller is up to here, the comedy guy taking a crack at a serious drama, no easy task given that he went from familiar to iconic somewhere between “There’s Something About Mary,” and “Night at the Museum.”
In Roger, he’s got his work cut out for him -- a character as alienated as he is alienating. Baumbach has woven in strains of Jeff Daniels’ father in “Squid,” the condescension dripping, with a few echoes of Nicole Kidman’s self-satisfied sister in “Margot at the Wedding.” Roger is just as smart and equally lethal but with more of a blowtorch delivery. Every time it seems as if he might connect with another human being in a remotely appropriate way, the sarcasm suddenly sears, leaving a nasty burn, usually on Florence.
As it happens, Stiller has a very believable mean streak, that glint in his eye filled with enough menace it could be used for serial killers or mafia hit men in coming years. He has far more difficulty exposing vulnerability, particularly important here, since without it Roger is pretty much unbearable.
His unresolved past comes back in the form of Ivan (Rhys Ifans, still best known as “Notting Hill’s” lovable oddball), an old bandmate now married with children, and an old girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife and a collaborator on the “Greenberg” story), a single mom living in the Valley hosting weekend barbecues. But really they are there to serve as the conscience Roger can’t seem to locate, forcing a bit, though not nearly enough, of introspection.
Meanwhile, Florence is almost as adrift as Roger, though in more of an innocents-abroad way. As they stumble around romance and a relationship, Gerwig comes the closest to salvaging the film. She makes Florence an open book and an easy read, a night spent singing sad ballads in a mostly empty bar saying all that needs to be said about those lost in the dream factory.
There is a lot more mucking around in the emotional crises that come with growing older, if not quite growing up, but much of the spot-on nuance the filmmaker brought to “Squid” has gone missing. In “Greenberg” it’s sometimes difficult to figure out whether it’s Roger or Baumbach who has lost his way.