Focus Features | USA | 107 mins

There’s never a moment in Noah Baumbach‘s new film in which we openly root for Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the film’s narcissistic antihero. But then there’s never a moment in which we cannot relate to his actions. Roger’s a mean, selfish person with one friend (Rhys Ifans) who’s too good to him and a brother (Chris Messina) who thinks of him more as a burden (and then, hired help) than as family.

The film, however, is only half about Greenberg. It actually opens on Florence Marr, played by the impossibly natural, impossibly tragic Greta Gerwig, of Mumblecore pseudo-fame (Baghead, Nights and Weekends, etc.). Gerwig’s Florence is who we root for: a female version of Benjamin Braddock in many ways. She’s graduated college and now “been out of school for as long as she was in school.” She’s still an assistant for a professional doing what she’s apparently not ready for yet (the pro is Messina).

Imagine her reassurance when she meets Greenberg, a 40-year old carpenter who’s come to Los Angeles to dog/house sit for his brother while he and his family go to Vietnam to open up a new hotel. Roger’s decided to “do nothing for a while.” Compared to this old man, Florence is just fine. She’s got plenty of time to do nothing before it becomes “doing nothing.”

As a narrative, Greenberg is Baumbach’s most barren, brave and honest film. It’s also Stiller’s most barren, brave and honest performance. There’s enough funny in the film, but it comes through awkward tension as a means of relief. Take a scene early in the film, in which Roger wades into his brother’s pool. It’s a serene moment, and the man seems to be reflecting on the moment and moments passed by. Before long he’s in the deep end and he cannot swim. We watch as Roger waddles and waves and stretches for the ladder, barely making it to the side. It’s a sad, somber moment full of laughter. It’s funny that someone as old as this guy can’t swim. It’s the why of it that’s sad.

Or at least we assume the why is a sad why. Whys have never been Baumbach’s intention. He’s a filmmaker focused on the how. How can somebody like this exist? How can he be aware of his faults and still be completely oblivious to them?

Stiller, in some moments, appears as conflicted as an actor as Roger is a character. The veteran comedian itches to break free, much as Adam Sandler does in films like Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. And it works here like it did there. Greenberg should have been more and knows it. Back in his mid-20s he lead a band (which included Ifans’ Ivan and Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass) which got a record deal. Greenberg turned it down and sealed the band’s fate.

This singular regret represents countless others. Others which we’ll never know and probably wouldn’t want to. Greenberg’s just recently exited a psych ward of sorts. That’s enough of a warning.

For most people at least. Florence dives into her relationship with Greenberg head first, completely aware of his self-destruction and ability to destroy others (“hurt people hurt people” see says). A lesser performance could have made Florence mannered and cliched, but neither of those words come into play thanks to Gerwig, who doesn’t act so much as she is.

The film’s a wandering story in search of a narrative. Baumbach (here in his fourth feature) remains fascinated on people tortured not by extreme circumstance or financial woes or unexpected emotional turmoil, but rather living life and not knowing how to handle failure. Every character represents another step in the process. Greenberg’s ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s credited with writing the story) is reminded of his poison thoughts offer a long cup of coffee and can’t handle the past. Likewise, Greenberg’s ex-friend (Duplass) still holds a grudge for the band breaking up while he continues to dress like he’s in a band.

All of it is painful to watch and even more painful to accept.

At one point in the film, Greenberg makes an observation: “all the adults dress like kids, and the kids dress like superheroes.”

Someone should tell those kids they won’t grow up to be superheroes.

9 out of 10

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