Noah Baumbach may be the definitive observer of millennial life in bourgeois America, which is about as scathing an indictment as anyone can level at a group of people. Baumbach's characters are vain, neurotic, deeply unlikable and capable of meticulously enumerating everyone's character flaws but their own. As much as I hate them, I'm occasionally drawn in by the fascination of recognizing real people, even myself, in these characters.
There are moments in Greenberg where I fidgeted from the discomfort of seeing what could be myself and some of my friends 20 years from now, ranting vacuously about the most minor of inconveniences. But where The Squid and the Whale built its characters into something that stuck with me, Greenberg never coalesced into anything but a circular bore, looping around the same vignette over and over and changing only the setting to keep things fresh.
Baumbach makes a point of this initially, opening not on the neurotic Roger Greenberg who gives the film its title but Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant of Roger's brother Phillip. She drives around running errands for her boss, who's preparing for an extended business vacation in Vietnam with his family. While he's gone, Phillip will let Roger, freshly released from a mental hospital, stay in the place and look after the family dog, pretentiously named Mahler.
By focusing almost exclusively on Florence in the beginning, Baumbach slyly sets up the endless routine of her life, running errands for one Greenberg brother who treats her like family, then ultimately running around to care for Roger (who, among his other hangups, does not drive). The key difference is that Roger treats her not like a part of the family but a romantic interest, finding the middle ground between Phillip's tasking and the casual hookups Florence has to get over a vaguely defined "long relationship."
Florence is such an interesting character and played so brilliantly by Gerwig, one of the best and most under-appreciated actors of her generation, that the film loses its spark when it shifts to Roger's perspective. With no disrespect to Ben Stiller, who truly gives a great performance here, his character is so purposefully hollow that the tattered and frayed (and believable) humanity of Florence looks even more appealing but is held out of reach.
Roger spends his days attempting to do nothing, something we can intuit he has been preparing for these last 40 years. Stiller keeps his neuroticism in check, expunging Roger's quirks through letters to companies that annoy him. He even sends a letter back home to New York addressed to Mayor Bloomberg, calling for a ban on honking car horns save for "emergency situations." He meets old friends who may look down on Roger's inane life path but are no better; we first see them at a children's party lounging on sofas and drinking. His estranged best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), still resents Roger ruining a record deal for their old band but works to get his own life back together and sees forgiving his friend as a way to move forward.
At times, Greenberg is hilarious in its deadpan style, such as Roger bitching about a man in a restaurant speaking loudly, only to scream obscenities in embarrassment when Ivan has the waiters sing him "Happy Birthday." The subplot involving the family dog's mysterious illness gets old, but the panic it gives Roger is amusing for a time. Best of all is the quiet humor of Roger and Florence's first hookup, involving two people so awkward that they end up having a frank discussion about relationships and sex without realizing it, then dipping back into their halting advances.
But so many other moments fall flat. Mahler's sickness drags on for the length of the film, to the point that I felt the dog was supposed to be a metaphor (and it is, in the most intangible and lazy way possible). Making a film about a man trapped in a cycle offers the dangerous likelihood of revolving around the same scenario, which Greenberg does ad nauseam. The film hits a nadir at a party Roger throws for his 20-year-old niece about to leave for Australia. As he snorts coke to feel cool again, Roger delivers a cringe-worthy monologue about "kids today" that is so bad I can only pray Baumbach intended it with an ironic bent but so sincerely presented and delivered that there exists the awful possibility he means it.
Stiller, good as he is, is stuck with a character whose quirks come off as quirks. His letter-writing, OCD and stunted adolescence never add up into a human being. Gerwig, on the other hand, gives the best kind of performance, the kind that is transparent and real. There's no distinction between Gerwig and Florence. Far from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of most indie films, Florence is an aching soul, and even -- especially -- when she smiles, she conveys a sense of loneliness and pain that is rending. To look at her is to see that funny, sweet friend you had in high school who was so approachable you never really thought about dating her only to wonder about it after everyone went their separate ways. Without any big crying moments or monologues, Gerwig takes that person into her twenties, when it seems the world itself has taken the same approach as the guys in high school: everyone loves her, but in a way she's too real for anyone to handle. She isn't a projection, a fantasy, a charity case or any other distortion of reality. She's just her, and the world doesn't know what to do with such a phenomenon.
Gerwig captures this so flawlessly that, were the film about her, it may well have been my favorite of the year, or at least in the upper echelon. But even Baumbach cannot adequately give her the moment she deserves, instead focusing on the tired clichés of Greenberg's character. Roger has cynical truisms like "Life is wasted on people," but Florence cannot be summarized so easily. It's almost as if Baumbach made a great and compelling character in spite of himself and didn't recognize it until he could do nothing about it. Or maybe Gerwig's effortless naturalism made lemonade out of lemon seeds.
I found some of the lighter touches in Greenberg intriguing, such as the generational statement made by Phillip and his family going to Vietnam not only on vacation but to start a hotel chain there. Furthermore, Gerwig gives one of the year's best performances as Florence, and Stiller puts in some of his finest work. But it just doesn't add up. The subplot of Ivan's wife and Roger's old crush (played by Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also got a "story by" co-credit) fizzles, as does the Mahler story. Yet it is the failure of the narrative to progress until suddenly the protagonist jumps forward at the end that truly seals Greenberg's fate. And when the film ends on the suspense of listening to a confession on a voicemail, I could not bring myself to care even though Florence was directly involved. Perhaps what disappoints me most about Greenberg is how close it comes to being a unique and captivating film, only to pull away each time it nears the line.