Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is not for everyone. Those looking for computer-enhanced other worlds or raucous shenanigans with ensuing laughter should avoid this drama, which stars Ben Stiller at his best. Instead, the “unobtanium” in this excellent character study comes in the form of plain old unfulfilled dreams, long since vaporized, leaving behind the impure byproduct of reality to fuel lives that did not go as planned.Recovering from a nervous breakdown, Roger Greenberg (Mr. Stiller) returns to Los Angeles, where he grew up, to house-sit for his more successful brother. His goals while in L.A. are to build a doghouse for his brother’s German Shepherd and to generally do as little as possible. He pounds pills and low-balls of whiskey while firing off angry letters to American Airlines and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, to name a few. The years of self-criticism have left him with an unbecoming tendency to turn it outward on everything from a faulty airline seat to Manhattan’s noise pollution.
Greenberg tries to reconnect with some old friends, all in their forties, including his ex-band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). The scruffy Brit was once the epitome of cool but now fixes computers, has an 8-year-old son and lives in a motel while his marriage undergoes a “trial separation.” They had a record deal back in the day, but it blew up when Greenberg refused to compromise his artistic freedom – a mistake that has left them grasping for meaning elsewhere ever since.
Shortly after the band dissolved, Greenberg moved across the country, where he became a carpenter and was seemingly free of any witness to his unfulfilled potential. He got his wish – no one calls him on his birthday anymore.
The only person Greenberg is able to somewhat connect with is Florence (newcomer Greta Gerwig), his brother’s 25-year-old nanny. An aspiring singer herself, Florence is as friendly and understanding as Greenberg is misanthropic. But she too is lost. She cannot believe she has been out of college for as long as she was in, as if contentment and success should have come by now. Through fits and starts, their shared unease with life draws them close.
As in his excellent 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale,” writer and director Noah Baumbach again demonstrates his knack for mining humor and angst out of the disappointing lives of intelligent people who are drowning in self-awareness. Mr. Baumbach has a pitch-perfect ear for the way people really speak, but it is his use of silence in “Greenberg” that reveals him to be a remarkable humanist. Repeatedly, the characters bathe in the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, and the unsaid becomes just as revealing, if not more so, than any expository dialogue or backstory.
“Greenberg” lacks a traditional plot arc that culminates with a tidy denouement. And there are fewer laughs than most would expect from a movie starring Ben Stiller. Instead, “Greenberg” is an honest portrayal of life’s complexities and disappointments, perhaps offering viewers a chance to see a bit of their own experience depicted onscreen. And such resonance is what moves films like “Greenberg” away from being mere escape and closer to art.
1hr 47min. Rated R for language,
nudity and adult situations.