Ben Stiller’s best comedy has always tapped into the hilarious, foot-stomping demands of egotistical men with metaphorically tiny feet. So it’s a shock to see what the star of Tropic Thunder and Zoolander does with the title role in Greenberg. Completely stripped of his comedic armor, Stiller ?lowers his big movie-star head like a ram, and paws the ground until all that’s left of the character of Roger Greenberg is a ? nakedly unlikable, stuck, single, 40ish man behaving pissily because he doesn’t know any other way to be. Even when a luscious, improbably tolerant young woman (the artlessly divine individualist Greta Gerwig in a showcase role) presents herself to him, he sticks to being a jerk.
But wait, this is a good thing — let me finish! Greenberg is the latest acutely attentive, intentionally painful study in upper-middle-class discomfort from Noah Baumbach, who previously gave us The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. The story (which is co-credited to the director and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Roger’s ex-girlfriend) is set outside Baumbach’s comfort zone of affluent Manhattan and Brooklyn. Instead, Greenberg unfolds in an alien, Woody Allenish Los Angeles where everyone drives except You Know Who. After unspecified psychiatric hospitalization, the emotionally fragile Roger — a sometime carpenter — mooches at his rich brother’s ritzy home while bro and family are off vacationing in trendy Vietnam. Gerwig plays Florence, the family’s personal assistant, dropping in to pet-sit the dog. Roger’s old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) stops by too, even though Roger screwed the guy over years ago when the two were in a band. Nothing good happens during the course ? of the movie — and Baumbach seems to be saying, Take it or leave it. I, for one, take it.
Although Greenberg is Baumbach’s most self-lacerating picture yet, there is something undeniably compelling about the surgical precision with which the filmmaker picks at neuroses that feel very personal. I hope that one day Baumbach will tell the story of a man who has learned how to live in his own skin. In the meantime, his movies are addictive dispatches from a genteel jungle of white privilege, where highly educated people behave badly. I can’t take my eyes off the exotic wildlife. B+