Greenberg is asked by his brother to housesit his place in L.A. while he and his family are on vacation in Vietnam. Greenberg was recently dismissed from a mental asylum and now just wants to do nothing. He doesn’t want to be overwhelmed or be involved with anything complicated. He just wants to do…nothing. Nothing is an impossible task for he involves himself in the lives of his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), his old friend (Rhys Ifan), and his former lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
His attempts at love and friendship are constantly plagued by his attitude and neurosises. More often than not, the relationships deserved to be tainted. Greenberg is beyond socially incompetent. He seems constantly annoyed by other people’s vulnerabilities and irrationally reacts to them. Stiller does an amazing job of displaying this character and never asking for sympathy. There is an element of pity felt towards the character, but it comes naturally in parallel with Florence’s extreme tolerance.
Instead of a familiar story of redemption, this is a story of relevancy. It’s very difficult to drive a story when the main character has no motivation or drives. Often the movie becomes too unbearable to be around him, but the supporting characters save the moments. Gerwig is truly great as a 25-year-old woman who is not highly ambitious but knows how to move forward. Unlike Greenberg she is able to actively pursue things that interest her even if it’s not always the best option. Despite this difference, this doesn’t make her as confident as Greenberg.
This is Noah Baumbach’s fifth feature film as a writer/director. He’s growing as a filmmaker who is taking more subtle risks. To have characters who are occasionally repulsive is not a task many are willing to try. This film rests in-between his other two in this fashion. Greenberg is never as compelling as Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale but is still more interesting than the ensemble in Margot at the Wedding. Even when there are weaker elements to his movies, Baumbach riddles his films with acute observations in human nature. One of the best scenes in Greenberg is the uncomfortable “date” between Greenberg and his former girlfriend Beth. In both cases Baumbach carefully establishes what they want from this encounter. It’s orchestrated so well because every action they make feels like real characters and not people in a movie.
Greenberg is definitely worth seeing, but it is not for everyone. The ending feels very satisfying and that removes some of the bitter elements of the movie.