Greenberg: Something from Nothing

03/17/2010 4:00 AM |

Directed by Noah Baumbach

On the surface, the title character of Noah Baumbach’s latest film represents a species of protagonist afforded far too much screen time by the milquetoast pseudo-indies that currently glut our theaters. White, male, privileged, yet ultimately an underdog for his adorably eccentric state of arrested development (will he ever Grow Up?) and endearingly awkward interactions with the opposite sex (will he win The Girl?), this anti-anti-hero was once a relatable tragi-comic archetype of modern masculine insecurity since become an exhausted ambassador of narcissism.

But there’s more to Roger Greenberg, a troubling stranger among the charming lower-case losers of American cinema’s mid-to-late Apatow-era. Greenberg is an unmistakable hand-to-forehead Loser and as played by Ben Stiller, the Charlie Chaplin of humiliation, he can only blame his “self-“: self-pitying, self-absorbed, self-defeating, though certainly not self-sufficient, this 40-year-old casualty of unfulfilled rock star dreams (again, his fault) arrives from NYC in the first stages of recovery from a nervous breakdown to housesit his successful brother’s L.A. mini-mansion, resolved to “do nothing” beyond penning Bellovian/Seinfeldian complaint letters to Starbucks et al.

But someone as lost as Greenberg can never “do nothing.” Vulnerable yet petulant, he must flail about at those around him, going hot-cold on much younger nanny Florence (Greta Gerwig), lamely attempting a reunion with ex Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and dragging settling-down best friend/former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) into fantasies of perpetual, irresponsible youth. If these scenarios sound drawn from a well-worn template, Baumbach imbues them with perfectly rendered life, especially re: Florence, not just a pretty chance at redemption but a confused individual in her own right whose tolerance for Greenberg’s insensitivities and tantrums has painfully violable limits.

Unable to connect to the very people to whom he acts superior, Greenberg reaches crisis point at a houseparty populated by teens and twenty-somethings cooler than he’ll ever be: it’s one of the saddest movie scenes in ages, intentionally hilarious and cringe-inducing, emotionally terrifying and humbling. Stiller nails every phase of Greenberg’s waking psychodrama: pathetic, spastic attempts to impress the kids, defensive analyses of their belittling condescension, a drug-altered recognition of his own mortality in a pool-drowned rodent, a phone message monologue to Florence pulled off without an ounce of sentimentality or irony. Naturally written and paced to avoid the histrionic pile-up of Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg continues Baumbach’s dysfunctional and neurotic character studies with poignant, deserving empathy.

Opens March 19