Arts Desk

Reviewed: Greenberg

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Grouse and Home: Greenberg (Stiller) gets grumpy.

Greenberg
Directed by Noah Baumbach

“I gotta stop doing things just because they feel good,” says a lost young woman in Greenberg. Flo (Greta Gerwig) is talking about one-night stands, but in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s universe, that attitude seems to apply to pretty much everything. Baumbach doesn’t like his characters to be happy—in fact, from The Squid and the Whale to Margot at the Wedding to his latest, he prefers to slum with the downright miserable.

Here, the mid-20s personal assistant Flo at least tries to bring joy into her life, singing in Los Angeles bars, caring for her boss’ dog, and spending time with friends. So it’s baffling when she falls for the title character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, serious and angry), who’s housesitting for his brother after a stay in a mental hospital. Roger is nearly 41, lives in New York, and works as a carpenter, an occupation he might have been content with had he not blown a record deal in his 20s, a sin his bandmates and now-distant friends still haven’t forgiven him for. He tells people he’s now taking time to do nothing, though that’s not entirely true—his hobbies are writing letters of complaint, mood-swinging, and criticizing everyone, even Ivan (Rhys Ifans), the one longtime friend who is still willing to put up with his bullshit.

Greenberg, though as realistically awkward and wayward as all of Baumbach’s films, is arguably also his most depressing, and some may find Roger so disagreeable—and Flo too agreeable—that the movie is unwatchable. The script does offer some levity, such as when Roger and Ivan are dining out and observing the behavior at a raucous nearby table: “Laughing already implies appreciation,” Roger says. “Applause just seems superfluous. And way to treat a restaurant like your living room.” But soon thereafter he throws a curse-laden tantrum when the waitstaff launches into “Happy Birthday.” So you may well identify with Roger’s irritation at neighbors who show up unannounced to use his brother’s pool, or his reaction when he and Ivan pull up to a grown-up party that nonetheless looks like Romper Room. (“Keep going! It’s a fucking nightmare!”) But you probably won’t like it.

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