Noah Baumbach’s latest misanthropic character study needs to try a little harder to get me to like it. The film follows the misadventures of one Roger Greenberg, played by a toned down Ben Stiller. Greenberg is wary of people, and people are wary of him, with good reason.
Although the movie is about Greenberg, you wouldn’t guess it from the first ten minutes, where instead of introducing us to the main character, the focus is on Florence, played by mumblecore star Greta Gerwig. She is your typical Los Angeles underachiever, but with a warmer heart, working as a personal assistant for a well-to-do family and spending the rest of her time searching for some kind of real personal connection. Of course, like most families, this family has a black sheep, and thus Stiller finally makes his appearance when Greenberg visits L.A. while his brother’s family vacations in Vietnam.
Greenberg suffers a nervous breakdown and decides to do nothing with his life. The rest of the film is about Greenberg’s world, or worldview I should say, and his painful courtship of the naïve, young (15 years younger, to be exact), Florence. The film does a good job of showcasing the jerk that is Greenberg (I’d say too good a job). Stiller is solid; Gerwig is goofy and an interesting presence. The whole thing is bathed in beautiful light by the always-great cinematographer Harris Savides.
Greenberg struggles in social situations and pretty much criticizes everything around him, including mild jabs at Starbucks and American Airlines, in obsessive little letters he writes. For a while, I almost liked him, because that sounds a little like me, but this is where the film fails. Greenberg is never sympathetic. He is self-centered and mean-spirited and just when you think you might like him, he has another jerk-off outburst. He yells at friends, family, and Florence, who keeps putting up with him and coming back for more. Why she suffers him, why Greenberg is a jerk, and why he had a breakdown are never made clear. There are some hints to his past, a dead mother, a kiboshed music career, and possibly some kind of auto accident. But, they’re way too subtle, failing to illuminate why I should care about this character and by extension this movie. There’s no real conflict in his life (or the movie), and the only thing that seems to be in question is when will Greenberg quit being such a douchebag and grow up already, which remains to be seen.
By the end, I wondered what purpose all this negativity served. He’s not a lovable loser. He’s not redeemed by his woman or some last-minute heroics. I’m not asking for much, but something, maybe make him somehow funny in his own curmudgeonly way. But no, the only time I laughed was when he gave someone a cheeseburger at an inopportune time. It was the moment that should have been his saving grace, but was a throwaway joke instead.
I wish the movie kept its focus on Florence, and that she never met Greenberg. She is a lot more interesting (and likable) and I consistently wondered what kind of wisdom hid behind her quirks and why she seemed so self-destructive. However, the film kind of trashes my interest in Florence, because of her relationship to Greenberg. That’s how unlikable he is, he takes the most likable character and makes me hate her too, simply because she likes him.
The whole thing comes to the predictably ambiguous end, after a party sequence that is uncharacteristically stylized compared to the rest of the movie. Will Florence and Greenberg live happily ever after? I don’t care and neither does this movie.