Roger Greenberg used to play in a band, became a carpenter, and “Now,” as he puts it, “I’m really trying to do nothing.” Luckily for audiences, Roger is not doing a very good job of it in the film that bears his name, Greenberg.
Ben Stiller plays Roger, recently released from a mental hospital, and readjusting to life in L.A. after an extended sojourn in New York. His brother’s family has warily given him run of the house while they’re out of town, leaving his brother’s personal assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig of Baghead) in the uncomfortable position of assisting the über-neurotic Roger. What follows is an oratorio of awkwardness sung in a minor key, as Roger hourly proves his neediness, in part by hitting on the twentysomething Florence.
Greenberg is directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), whose spouse Jennifer Jason Leigh co-wrote the story and appears as Greenberg’s ex. Leigh’s history with Robert Altman seems to have rubbed off on Baumbach, whose sights and sounds have a distinctly Altman-esque feel: slow zooms, overlapping dialogue, intimate close-ups, and, of course, quirky characters.
Greenberg is a mess. Not knowing what to do with himself, he drinks and writes complaint letters. That accomplished (until the next day), he wallows in self-absorption, obsessing about his life choices and his romantic options. He’s witty (ask him how he is, and he’ll tell you, “I’m fair to middling. Leonard Maltin would give me 2 ½ stars”), but also lacerating, lacking an internal censor. It’s not easy being his friend—former band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) shows the patience of a saint—and even harder being his girlfriend.
And yet Florence sees something in him. And, increasingly, we can see in Florence her own neuroses. She’s too accommodating, and though she takes out time for singing gigs, hasn’t quite figured out how to meet her own needs (“I’ve really got to stop doing things just because they feel good,” she muses, unironically). Baumbach wisely never steps on the gas, letting the characters slowly develop or, as the case may be, revert.
Director of photography Harris Savides (Milk) captures smoggy, rambling Los Angeles; Stiller resists softening his irascible character; and Gerwig shines, whether projecting her inner thoughts (as she contemplates the back of the one-night-stand lying next to her), covering Judee Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road,” or singing along with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” drunk on champagne.
Greenberg doesn’t amount to much, really, but it’s an enjoyably amusing character study with plenty of little pleasures. As a study of two yearning Angelenos, it pursues an answer to the film’s opening line, delivered by a behind-the-wheel Florence as she tries to merge: “Are you going to let me in?"
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]