It's becoming increasingly clear that Noah Baumbach's movies are an exercise in empathy. From Jeff Daniels' horrifyingly pretentious professor in The Squid and the Whale to, well, everyone in Margot at the Wedding, his characters tend to be self-involved, clueless to others' needs, and very vocal about their strong and unpopular opinions. So in that sense, Roger Greenberg, as played by Ben Stiller in Greenberg, is very much a Baumbach lead.
How you feel about Greenberg may have a lot to do with how able you are to tolerate its protagonist. Having left LA for New York in his youth, Roger returns after a mental breakdown to housesit for his far more successful brother. Unable to drive (since he's a New Yorker, natch), he soon buddies up to his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a pretty and much younger woman inexplicably interested in him. Much of the rest of the movie consists of them hooking up, him freaking out on her, then asking her for another chance.
See, Greenberg is pretty much an asshole from start to end. He constantly badmouths the wife of his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) while insisting Ivan devote all his time to driving him around. He's unapologetic about ruining his high school band's chance at the big time by turning down a record deal for creative reasons. And he continually treats Florence terribly, whether because she's too young for him, works for his brother, or because he'd rather be with his high school ex-girlfriend who barely remembers him.
But lest you think this is just Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Movie, there is a lot to sympathize with in Roger too. As a guy returning to his hometown after leaving over a decade ago, as a New Yorker in LA, and as someone who never grew up when all his friends did, his disconnection and desperation is legitimately sad. Despite telling everyone he's concentrating on "doing nothing," he spends a lot of the movie begging people to meet him for a drink or for dinner, desperate for company. And he continually has to hear that they're too busy with family and children. Helps forgive some of his jerkier qualities.
As you may have also gathered, it's not a typical part for Ben Stiller. He's not the everyman nice guy from Meet the Parents nor the comical bad guy of Dodgeball. He's not even playing a grown-up Jesse Eisenberg, as I had guessed from the trailer. It's a very different kind of role for him, which makes his performance all the more impressive. He makes all of Roger's more unlikable qualities believable, but he carries in his own charisma so that somewhere in that awkward little smile you sense you should feel for him.
And as downbeat as some of the story can be, Baumbach is fantastic at finding a way to add humor in all the right places. There's a great recurring bit in which Roger writes complaint letters to companies about all sorts of minor things. Even the most ordinary scenes have some great lines that are just so clever or witty that I found myself laughing through a lot of the movie. Then again, other people I know who have seen it didn't think it was funny at all, just sad. So everyone's likely to have their own personal reaction, good or bad. As always, comedy is extremely subjective.
Whether you laugh or not, Greenberg's bound to make you feel something. And unlike in Margot at the Wedding, all of the supporting characters are generally likable, so it makes an impact when Roger does or says something particularly outrageous. This early in the year, it's good to have something a little more thoughtful in theaters.