Following a nervous breakdown, New York carpenter Roger Greenberg (Stiller) arrives in LA to look after his brothers family home and sickly Alsatian dog. His path crosses with the familys young P. A. Florence (Gerwig), and an awkward relationship develo
Noah Baumbach is a New Yorker. In a 15-year film career he’s brought his urban, intellectual humour to a series of comedies that, from 1995’s Kicking & Screaming to 2007’s Margot At The Wedding, have seen post-grad existential indecision turn bitter with middle age. Written with current partner Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greenberg begins in sunlight and youth, camera close on the innocent face of Florence Marr (indie darling Greta Gerwig), driving on Sunset Boulevard, negotiating the traffic, and preparing for the Greenbergs’ vacation in Vietnam; we warm to her awkward beauty, her affectless energy. Yet, as with Meteor or Armageddon, this is a film named after the force of destruction that will be visited upon our sympathetic lead(s): Roger Greenberg.
A spiky ball of New York neuroses, Roger is Woody Allen by way of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a 40 year-old man trapped in adolescent self-obsession. Like The Graduate, or the second half of Annie Hall, this is an East Coast comedy about West Coast society, but one that’s harder on the New Yorker’s solipsism than the sun-weathered optimism of L. A.. Fifteen years ago Roger was in a band with his West Coast pals, but walked away from a major label deal. As the band’s former singer Ivan, Rhys Ifans is softly perfect, a good soul made weary by Roger’s unthinking actions, living “a life I didn’t plan”. Delusional about the past and his ex-girlfriend (Leigh), Roger hits out at this unplanned world, striking hardest at those he needs most. As he can’t drive, Florence does his shopping and takes the sickly Mahler to the vet. In a regular rom-com they’d fall in love and the dog would get better. This is not that film.
Looking physically drawn, stooped by the weight of his issues, Stiller is remarkable. His cruel treatment of Florence’s friendship, and their awkward sexual encounters, make for difficult viewing, but we, like her, see something worth saving in this broken little man: “You like me so much more than you think you do,” she tells him. As the tale unfolds in its strange, unexpected ways, her words hold equally true for the film.
Like a lot of human relationships Greenberg is complicated, infuriating, good-hearted, funny, often painful, and well worth the effort. A sad little movie but also a great one, lit by two astonishing central performances.