In Greenberg (Focus Features), the writer/director Noah Baumbach attempts the heady, possibly foolish experiment of trying to write a romantic comedy without charm. This is entirely different from the phenomenon of the romantic comedy with fake charm, the kind that’s convinced, against all evidence, that it has chemistry and amusing banter and meet-cute likeability by the bushel. (Painful examples from the past year include All About Steve, The Ugly Truth, and by all accounts, the just-released Bounty Hunter.) Rather than miscalculating its own level of charm, Greenberg eschews charm altogether, just as its main character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) eschews the normal lubricants of human interaction: tact, gratitude, listening to what the other person is saying. Greenberg is sour, self-absorbed, closed off from new experiences—one of the least likely candidates for viable leading-man-hood to come along in some time.
A 40-ish carpenter recently hospitalized for a mental breakdown, Roger has just come from New York to L.A. to house-sit at the elegant Hollywood Hills mansion of his far more successful brother, Philip (Chris Messina). Philip and his family will be in Vietnam for six weeks, and they’ve entrusted Roger with the care of their German shepherd, Mahler. Philip also mentions to Roger that he’s free to enlist the services of the family’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a sweet, scattered 25-year-old with vague aspirations to become a singer. So Roger, whose various maladaptations to adult life include an inability to drive, asks her to pick up some staples at the market: whiskey and ice-cream sandwiches.
Without any of the usual tension-building flirtation—a choice that could be either brave or lazy, depending on your patience for this movie—Baumbach throws the two together on a cringingly bad sort-of date that segues in a matter of minutes from a shared Coors Light to a truncated act of cunnilingus. After that and other encounters end in confused recrimination, Roger and Florence decide it’s best that they not keep seeing each other, but they can’t seem to escape each other’s orbit, especially when Mahler the dog comes down with a mysterious disease and Florence pitches in to shuttle him back and forth to the vet.
As in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach details the harm that upper-middle-class white people casually inflict on each other. Roger’s best friend, Ivan (the marvelous Welsh actor Rhys Ifans) is in the midst of a painful separation from his wife, which Roger callously regards as a good thing—he never liked her, anyway. In a bungled attempt to impress Roger, Florence recounts the story of a sexual misadventure that sends Roger storming out the door in a jealous rage. And when Roger has lunch with an ex-girlfriend from his glory days (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s wife, who also co-wrote the script), his emotional tone-deafness is so palpable that the poor woman is all but clawing at the door to leave.
Line by line, these scenes are beautifully written and observed, but the story as a whole never coheres. Why does Florence give the cloddish Greenberg so many do-overs? Should the fact that her character is established early on as sexually insecure and easily talked into bed make us root more or less for Roger and Florence’s future as a couple? Greenberg is deliberate in its attempt to keep the audience off-balance, but that tonal ambiguity shouldn’t have to come at the expense of character development.
The uneasy power differential between Roger and Florence is mirrored in the star-power differential between Stiller and Gerwig. She’s a 27-year-old actress best known for co-writing and starring in the mumblecore indie Hannah Takes the Stairs, while he’s … Derek Zoolander, Greg Focker, Tugg Speedman. Putting them together was a bold casting move, but as good as they both are in their roles—she in the flustered, galumphing mode of early Teri Garr, he in the clenched and mumbling one of late Woody Allen—they never quite seem to be sharing the same movie. Stiller appears more at home, and his character makes more sense, in his scenes with Ifans, a tall, gentle man whose diffident manner provides the perfect foil for Stiller’s perpetually simmering rage.
There will be many people—my viewing companion was one of them—who’ll be as repelled by Greenberg the movie as most of the people in it are repelled by Greenberg the man. That’s their prerogative, and Baumbach’s experimental foray into abrasive romantic comedy certainly isn’t for everyone. But Greenberg’s inconclusive last scene hints at the possibility that even the bitterest basket case stands a chance of finding someone who loves him. That’s sort of my hope for this movie, too.