The mine field soon to enter this particular tale is the titular Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a caustic OCD burnout, mental case, and semi-professional carpenter who’s come all the way out to LA from New York to wreak havoc on both his old friends and his brother’s milieu. (Florence happens to be his brother’s personal assistant.) We’ll get to Roger in a bit. But one of the reasons I found the film surprisingly entertaining is that it manages to sidestep so many of the Bouncing Betties I expected would derail the flick for me from jump street. For one, we’ve basically seen this exact same story — “hurt people hurt people,” as Florence puts it at one point — before from Baumbach, both in his magnum opus, The Squid and the Whale, and particularly in the considerably less-successful Margot at the Wedding.
For another, Greenberg makes no secret of relying on two of my least-favorite movie tropes going. One, the goofy hipster man-child who refuses to grow up and expects the universe to cater to his whims and idiosyncrasies. Probably done best in Knocked Up, the Apatowish “Omega male” — so coined by Slate‘s Jessica Grose — has been ubiquitous in recent years, as The New Yorker‘s David Denby noted back in 2007. And, truth be told, Greenberg the movie is at its most aggravating when it revels in the character’s man-child tics, a la Jack Black’s doofus husband in Margot, such as Roger obsessively applying Chapstick or writing strongly-worded irate customer letters to various corporate conglomerates.
The second irritating trope in play here is one I’ve complained about several times before, from Sideways to A Single Man. And that’s the very cinematic notion that an irascible, ornery, and/or depressed protagonist will invariably meet a smart, beautiful, and long-suffering significant other who really just wants to save him from himself — in this case, Gerwig’s Florence — and he will soon thereafter fall ass-backwards into a relationship he has absolutely no business being in. Um, no. Life doesn’t work that way, nor should it really. And every time Florence, 25, and Greenberg, 41, start falling backwards towards each other here, you kinda want to scream at her to get the heck out of Dodge and find a guy who isn’t, y’know, certifiably bugnuts crazy.
So why does Greenberg work anyway? For several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it, like all of Baumbach’s films, feels exceedingly well-observed. As a writer, Baumbach has a particularly good ear for dialogue, and gets how a conversation can bring people together or, by tortured increments, spin disastrously out of control. (See, for example, Greenberg’s varied ruminations with his old bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans, as good as I’ve ever seen him) or his star-crossed date with his long-ago ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife.) And, unlike in Squid, with Billy Baldwin’s “philistine” tennis coach, or Margot, with its slew of one-note unneighborly rednecks, this attention to character detail, and even a sense of magnanimity, applies to every person in the film.
Greenberg also benefits from quality performances across the board. I’ve already mentioned Gerwig, who’s an exceptionally low-key, honest, and appealing presence here. (She’s sort of the anti-Scarlett Johansson, an actress who, to my mind, seems to radiate self-entitlement and condescension in most every role.) But Stiller too is quite surprising here. Yes, Roger Greenberg can sometimes seem a collection of very Stillerish tics — the whiny letters and all that. But Stiller sells the character regardless. He doesn’t wink at the audience or let himself off the hook, even when Roger is being totally insufferable (which is basically most of the time.) If I thought the on-and-off love story here should have ended up a lot more off than on by the final reel, it’s a testament to how unlikable and uncompromising Stiller and Baumbach made their central character.
And, who knows? My failure to buy into the love story here probably speaks worse of me than it does of the movie. Sure, Florence ends up stepping on a few nasty mines over the course of this story as expected (one major one, in fact, happens before we even meet her.) But the very fact that Baumbach ends Greenberg on an ambiguous, even hopeful note suggests that maybe one of the more talented misanthropes in Hollywood right now learned a thing or two from the too-bleak Margot, and is getting a little less curmudgeonly in his middle age. And, hey, if he can change, maybe we all can change.