Usually, if a film has bad performances, you can’t care about the characters because you’ll always see the actor obscuring their role. Greenberg turns that problem on its head by having great performances for characters you could not care less about. Unless you have lived something in your life that relates to a character in the movie, then you will simply find these people and their problems irritating. Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, and Rhys Ifans make you believe their characters are real people who are a chore to spend two hours with.
Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is staying at his brother’s Los Angeles home after a stint in a mental institution. He spends his time writing complaint letters and being afraid of the neighbors who are allowed to use the pool. While living in the house, he meets the nanny, Florence (Gerwig), who spends her off-time having meaningless sex. Let me pause right here to say that Gerwig sold me that the character was sad and lost instead of simply being a slut. Greenberg’s only friend is Ivan (Ifans), a former bandmate from his younger days. Roger also goes after his old flame Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) even though it’s clear she now has no interest in him and never will.
It’s always refreshing to see Stiller play a character who isn’t nebbishy-put-upon-guy. Roger is prone to outbursts of rage it’s to the credit Stiller and writer-director Noah Baumbach’s that these outbursts feel angry and misdirected rather than the comedic outburst Stiller almost arrives at in all his nebbishy-put-upon-guy movies. Rounded out with some realistic fear and compassion, particularly relating to Florence, and you have Stiller playing an honest-to-god person instead of the same tired character he’s played since There’s Something About Mary.
One of the things I did find interesting about the film is that Roger is a character who lives in the past by pursuing his ex and reminiscing about his band days while dwelling on the minor slights of faceless corporations. This no longer became interesting when his character goes ahead and just says it during a conversation with Florence. It may be appropriate for Roger to voice that self-analysis and it’s a chink in his withdrawn/angry armor, but it’s not particularly rewarding for the audience who decided/hoped there may be something deeper to his character.
I must admit that I feel that to some extent I’m out of my depth on this movie. I feel like there’s a chance I could come back to it in ten years or even five years and love it to death. But I can’t judge a film based on how I may personally feel about it in the future. Nor can I look back on a film I saw ten years ago and say that the way I felt about it then is the way I’ll feel about it now. But for where I am in my life at this moment, I found these characters to be bland and their problems pedestrian. But where ever you are in your life right now, you should be able to appreciate the work of the lead actors.