In many ways, Noah Baumbach’s sixth film is his strongest yet. Baumbach seemingly hasn’t had a lot of trouble making exactly the kinds of films he wants to make, but that hasn’t always turned out so well — his last film, Margot at the Wedding, is almost brilliant, but goes off the rails in too many intentional ways to really have the same impact as the masterful The Squid and the Whale, which came before it.
Like Margot, Baumbach's latest effort, Greenberg, concerns itself with a wholly unlikable character, although the repulsive behavior isn’t quite so rampantly inclusive as in Margot. Ben Stiller’s titular Greenberg is a son of a bitch — not a lovably dysfunctional misfit or a misanthrope with a heart of gold. A troubled, mean asshole.
That’s not to say that Baumbach’s characterization or Stiller’s performance aren’t nuanced, but there’s not a lot of winking to the camera going on to remind viewers that Greenberg really does mean well, no matter how unpleasant he seems in this scene. This time, Baumbach nails the unpleasantness, reaping pitch black comedy and a fairly convincing emotional core.
Like all Baumbach films, character is king, so the plot details of Roger Greenberg (Stiller) staying at his brother’s house while he and his family are on vacation are negligibly important. Suffice to say, Greenberg wants to re-connect with an old bandmate (Rhys Ifans) and maybe an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also gets a story credit), but ends up spending most of his time with his brother’s assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig).
Greenberg’s unrelenting disagreeableness is matched only by Florence’s pervasive niceness. She’s way too nice, in fact, easily falling into bed with guys who couldn’t care less about her and aimlessly living her life mostly for the whims of others. Inexplicably, she’s drawn to Greenberg, and even though on paper the pair have a kind of schematic opposites attract quality that seems like perfect rom-com material, there’s not too much funny about their growingly unhealthy dynamic. Sure, Florence does represent a kind of redemption for Greenberg, but Baumbach never seems to oversell this point.
Pretty much everything already said about Stiller’s excellent performance is true. People like to fawn over the fact that he’s playing against typical manic comedic type, but one gets the sense this is the kind of work he wants to be doing, unlike Adam Sandler, who frankly seems scared to explore the depths of a character like the one he played in Punch-Drunk Love again, preferring to retreat to innocuously imbecilic fare like Grown Ups.