- Roger Greenberg is not a likable man. He's overpriveleged, needy, whiny, self-absorbed, and not exactly aging gracefully. He's He's bumming around LA, living at his brother's huge house, consciously trying to do nothing. He's still fixated on his life of fifteen years ago, when he and some friends were in a band and had a shot at a record deal, before Roger turned it down due to some sort of idealistic anti-corporate fit of youth-in-revolt. Since then, Roger moved to New York and became a carpenter, did time in a mental hospital, and basically lived in a state of prolonged arrested development. Now, he's back in LA, trying to reconnect with old friends, old girlfriends, and improbably falling into an awkward romance with his brother's 25 year old personal assistant, Florence (yes, his brother is basically the personification of LA douchebag). In any case, Roger Greenberg is a man who says he wants to do nothing, who acts like he yearns to be 25 again, and yet who is at a point in his life where he can't just ignore that he's a 40-year old man-child anymore. Greenberg, like it's title character, can be a hard movie to like. But its self-absorbed characters are the catalysts for some wry observational humor and some interesting insights into life and love. If anything, this feels in some ways like the spiritual successor to so many Woody Allen movies of old.
One of the key strengths of the film is how writer-director Noah Baumbach elicits some pretty stellar performances from his extremely solid cast. This is one of Ben Stiller's best-ever roles, no question. Especially given how stale his goofy, big-budget comic persona has gotten over the years, this back-to-basics part is a welcome return for Stiller to lower-key comedy - something which many people tend to forget he excels at. Here, Stiller is basically a walking personification of Gen-X slackerism at age 40. And some of his rants and raves and random observations are truly funny. For me, it was the little moments that were the best- Stiller's overly-analytical assesment of Florence's attractiveness, his repeated desire to know what others think of him, his little asides about life in Los Angeles. Sometimes though, I did feel like Greenberg just works as a sounding board for Baumbach, and some of the rants about things like today's twenty-somethings just felt pretty misguided and condescending. Baumback writes his forty-year old characters like teenagers, so his twenty-five-year-old characters come off as complete children. It's a little obnoxious at times. Overall though, the rant-y nature of the movie mostly works to its benefit, eliciting a lot of laughs and entertaining moments.
Greenberg also features a breakthrough performance of sorts for indie-darling actress Greta Gerwig. As Florence, Gerwig is fascinating to watch, definitely one of those actresses who's so distinctive that you have to sit up and take notice of her work. Childlike yet in some ways oddly wise, Florence seems like a strange match for Roger, except when you realize that in a weird way, they both compliment each other. Even the fact that Florence can stand Roger is a testament to their unlikely connection. Roger almost sabotages things at every chance - he assaults her with multiple verbal outbursts, and just seems like he'd be impossible to get along with. But even though you wonder about the somewhat sadsack Florence setting herself up for abuse, you still can't help but like her thanks to Gerwig. I don't know how many other actresses could have pulled that off.
The other standout here is probably Rhys Ifans as Roger's friend and former bandmate, Ivan. The only one of Roger's old crew who still tolerates him, Ivan serves as a nice counterpoint to Roger, because Ivan was once the troubled one in the group, but is now trying to embrace adulthood, trying to make his marriage work and to spend time with his son. Jennifer Jason-Leigh (Baumbach's wife, who also has a story credit on the film), is also good, as Roger's ex-girlfriend.
Greenberg is a well-done, slice-of-life comedy. It didn't blow me away or anything, but I did think there were some interesting observations in the script, and some really funny moments and scenes. Roger Greenberg isn't the most likable character, but I think most of us can relate to his various neuroses in some small way. Does the movie sometimes walk the line between quirkiness and self-indulgence? Yes - sometimes its point of view is just plain off-putting. But Greenberg doesn't need us to love or even like its characters (unlike, say, Funny People). The movie is, at its heart, a meditation on the importance of human connection, and it tells its story well, via some excellent performances, and with plenty of awkwardly hilarious humor. It's a small movie, but there are some big questions at the heart of its narrative.
My Grade: B+