He promises to build a doghouse. He even has a tool belt, and buys some wood.
And then he stares off into the middle distance, or sits at a table writing letters of complaint to Starbucks, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to American Airlines. These are major accomplishments in his day.
Greenberg, then, is about what happens when this one-man pity party meets his brother's and sister-in-law's personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). In her 20s and experiencing her own shoulder-shrugging tremors of ennui, Florence is pretty in a lumbering sort of way, and the moment when the two of them - Greenberg and Florence - go back to her place for a late-night drink has to be one of the most unromantic and uncomfortable sex scenes in the history of motion pictures. It's a ballet of wrongheaded aggression, numb compliance, awkward miscues - and then it's over. Ouch.
A lot of Greenberg is like that scene: lacerating, keenly observed. Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale looked at the dissolution of a marriage from the perspective of a super-bright teenage son, and whose Margot at the Wedding offered a symphony of psychological cruelty and familial pain, is at it again. There's comedy here, to be sure, but it's steeped in neuroses and narcissism, and it's easy to lose patience with Greenberg and his mopey, medicated irony.
Well, I'll correct that: It's easy to want to lose patience, but Stiller's portrayal is so acutely real, Baumbach's writing so cutting and specific, and the work of Gerwig (of such mumblecore fare as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead) so seemingly effortless that Greenberg makes you, if not happy to stick around, then at least agreeable to the idea.
The film, too, offers a view of Los Angeles that's not the typical East Coast filmic jeer (think Woody's So-Cal sortie in Annie Hall). From the storied Hollywood watering hole of Musso & Frank to the avant-garde art galleries, funky mike-night bars and actual walkable neighborhoods, Baumbach (a New York transplant) captures a side of Los Angeles that's easily seductive. And there's that light.
Rhys Ifans plays Ivan Schrank, Greenberg's old friend and bandmate - a band that Greenberg basically destroyed on the brink of signing a record contract. There's regret and bitterness in the relationship, but Ifans' character, unlike Stiller's, has moved on. He's mellow, he's forgiving. And Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's wife and Greenberg's cowriter, appears fleetingly as Greenberg's ex. She, likewise, has moved on. (Leigh made her own L.A. movie, The Anniversary Party, a few years back. It makes a good companion piece.)
There are people who loathed Margot at the Wedding (believe me, I heard from a few), and if you count yourself among said ranks, steer clear of Greenberg at all costs. But if you have an appetite for intelligent, sardonic storytelling - for a glimpse into the lives of people you come to believe exist beyond the parameters of a screen fiction - then Greenberg, with Stiller's sad and self-mocking portrait at its core, is well worth getting to know.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.