Kimball's Peak Three
It's not writer-director Noah Baumbach's fault if his movie Greenberg, about a guy named Greenberg, makes me wish for a movie called Zoidberg, about the friendless, incompetent, vaguely Yiddish, attention-craving crustacean physician from Futurama.
In some ways the characters are similar. "Oh, it's all so complicated, with the flowers and the romance and the lies upon lies," Zoidberg once lamented, sounding a note that Greenberg might appreciate. Except that Greenberg, as played by a prickly and perpetually nettled Ben Stiller, doesn't seem very capable of appreciation.
Having flown in from New York to skulk around the Los Angeles home of his out-of-town brother (Chris Messina), the fortyish Greenberg promptly embarks on an affair with his brother's 20-something assistant (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer. There is cautionary talk of him having just ended a stay in the hospital after a nervous breakdown, and of her having just ended a relationship. There is awkward sex. There is hesitation, recrimination. They don't seem to know what they see in each other, or in themselves.
Greenberg keeps touching up his mouth with lip balm, as if to stop himself from saying something awful (it doesn't work), as if his soul itself were the thing that's really chapped. He announces that he's "trying to do nothing for a while," but still makes time to write cranky letters to corporate entities that have offended him, and to brood over his fallow creative ambitions. He used to play music, but now he's a carpenter. He starts building a doghouse for his brother's dog, but doesn't get far.
Greenberg's way of caring for others tends to consist of inquiring about their opinions of him. He reconnects with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who conceived the story with Baumbach, her husband), and can't stand watching her settle in to motherhood. He tracks down an old bandmate (Rhys Ifans), if only to defend his reasons for bailing on their record deal years before. Eventually he finds himself at a house party, feeling threatened by a gaggle of young scenesters, and using their coke to embolden his aggression. At one point, while talking with a woman on her way to an abortion, the kindest thing he can think to say is, "It's your day."
This is a fine and self-inverting turn from Stiller, who for once seems not to crave our attention but instead be burdened by it, and a self-expanding one from Gerwig, who has a generously quiet way of suggesting that this movie may actually be about her. Greenberg has some kinship with Annie Hall — neurotic New York Jew, adrift in L.A., reflects on costs of creative life and past romances, hooks up with ditzy singer, boils poignantly and humorously with disappointment — but there's no mistaking Noah Baumbach for Woody Allen.
Baumbach is as perceptive about aimlessness as he is adept at offhandedness. Whether these gifts are complementary may have to remain an open question. I believe we are meant to admire Greenberg the movie because it doesn't take pains to redeem Greenberg the man. There is bravery in this presentation, but also a sort of self-congratulatory understatement.
Again, I think of that other endearingly repulsive figure, Zoidberg, who once said, "OK, so you're nonchalant. Stop rubbing our noses in it."