Midlife vices

Noah Baumbachâ??s self-loathing reaches its nadir

Studio: Focus Features
Rated: R
Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina
Director: Noah Baumbach
WorkNameSort: Greenberg
Our Rating: 2.00

If newly released mental patient Roger Greenberg were in his 20s, it would be easy to pity him. Riddled with anxiety, neurosis and the typical disorders that frequent those emotional dives, Greenberg finds himself aimless and irritable, surrounded by bores and abusive because of it. Crashing at his brother's pad while his older sibling and his family are away on vacation, Roger Greenberg encounters an insecure waif, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who pushes him away and pulls him back at least as much as he does to her. In the meantime, his brother's dog gets sick and the house has been taken over by college kids who are way cooler than he. 

Co-writter and director Noah Baumbach, in films like Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale has always demonstrated a gift for empathizing with screwed-up yet bright kids. The problem here: Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is 40 years old. 

That's not the only qualification for a sane audience member's sympathy. His brother's 'pad� is actually an exquisite Bel Air mansion, and Roger seems to be financially comfortable enough to 'choose to do nothing� with his life. Worse, he infuses his layabout mission with intolerable misanthropy, whining about his fine dining, insulting Florence's intelligence, station and desirability. He discredits an entire generation of youth while high on their drugs and writes disgruntled letters to corporations. In other words, Roger Greenberg is a grade-A asshole. 

Forty-year-old Baumbach seems to believe that he can redeem this man, albeit half-heartedly, by confronting him with pals like Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a recovering addict. But the source of Ivan's moralizing comes from a band they started in college that was almost signed to a contract until Roger blew the deal. The idea that Baumbach would set as Greenberg's turning point a heated yelling match about that band in the backyard during the party reveals a shocking lack of introspection. These arguments do happen in life all the time and they're always morbidly funny and overwhelmingly sad. What they're not are character-building tipping points, and they certainly would not go un-remarked upon by a gaggle of drunken kids. Why not escalate the fight, only to have the characters gradually realize that they're being watched and mocked? Wouldn't that self-realization represent an actual moment of clarity? 

Even so, none of it forgives the appalling, sociopathic treatment of Florence by her clumsy lover, Roger. When he's not showing utter contempt for her immediately after sex, he uses her as a mode of transportation. Florence is far from an empty vessel for abuse; she sings in public, buys Punch & Judy toys for a child (which Roger hates) and maintains Greenberg's brother's house with pride. 

Baumbach miscalculated by training his camera on Stiller's Greenberg as the hero and not Gerwig's far more realized Florence. Why did Baumbach think anyone wants to spend two hours with anybody else in this film?