With its hip soundtrack and conventional pacing, “Greenberg” could give the impression of a standard indie comedy about life lessons. The drifting piece of soul at its center, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a middle-aged crank washed up as a houseguest in Los Angeles, certainly would fit into one of those types of movies. He's a 40-year-old failure who alienated everyone he ever knew and moved to New York to be a carpenter. Now that he's back, the only question in most movies would be when he gets saddled with the child or the even crankier father who teaches him how to really live. But “Greenberg,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, has the nerve to tell a more troubled story, a sad comedy about a guy you might never be able to like.
Recently discharged from a mental institution, Greenberg is house-sitting for his brother in L.A., hiding out with his medication and writing aggravated letters to corporations and institutions that have offended him. The few meager attempts he makes to reconnect with former acquaintances don't go well, and neither does an awkward romance with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg, we are given to understand through a series of painful encounters, has trouble acting normal. Unable to say hello to the neighbors or consider someone else's feelings during a date, he turns the world against himself wherever he goes, while projecting that very complaint onto the world. “Nobody calls me on my birthday anymore,” he says to what could be, now at 41, his last remaining friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who used to be in a band with him. “But it's not like I call them, either.”
It's not a stretch for Stiller to play an obnoxious guy, and yet this isn't a typical character for the actor, whose roles tend to be more broadly drawn and overtly comic. Greenberg isn't a lovable misfit; he's an unlovable one, severely uncomfortable in social situations, which leads him to say and do awkward or rude things, or lash out unexpectedly.
Ivan takes him to a party, where Greenberg can't stop sweating or applying his lip balm. Old friends ask what he's been up to, and because he's been in a hospital he can only respond with dry retorts. People think he's acting weirdly; Greenberg is smart enough to realize it, which only causes him to act more weirdly. It's a fine performance of a well-observed characterization by Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), who directs a gamut of movie stars both A-list, like Stiller, and newly minted, such as Gerwig and Mark Duplass, fresh from the mumblecore movement.
Baumbach by now is a sort of forefather of the style. His films have always been interested in thwarted and miserable people. The challenge he poses to himself is to blend the qualms and laughter they generate so that, like real life, neither takes over and there are no distinctions between comedy and tragedy. Baumbach doesn't spare anyone. There are brilliant instances in “Greenberg,” as with the director's best work, that could be hilarious to one person and mortifyingly familiar to another.
But when you boil the movie down it's more about one man's unusual circumstances, an authentic examination of mental illness that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson's “Punch-Drunk Love.” Stiller's character is the inverse of Adam Sandler's hilariously withdrawn Barry Egan, preferring aggression to cope with the fear that otherwise confounds him. Yet the movie doesn't stoop to be an exposAc of an affliction, either, as was the case with last summer's “Adam.” Whether Stiller's character has another form of anxiety disorder, or a severe form of narcissism or something else is difficult to say; Greenberg finishes the story thoroughly examined, but undiagnosed.
The film arouses a begrudging sympathy from the audience for a man who does little to deserve it, but that's part of its gift for studying its characters with such unflinching meticulousness. Too bad Greenberg never gets a glimpse of what we see. “What do people say about me?” he asks Ivan, who provides some candid answers that lead to a rift. What does Greenberg say about Greenberg? If Baumbach has a consistent void in his imaginative, courageous storytelling, it's getting his characters to turn inward, where even more terrifying territory awaits. (R) 107 min. HHHHI