He’s 40 going on 41. Coming off a breakdown. Underemployed, perhaps unemployable. Convinced in the absolute rightness of his convictions and the utter wrongness of yours. Believes wholeheartedly in Dorothy Parker’s saying that “hell is other people.” Believes in little else.

The story of a typical Popdose contributor? Yes—but, no. What we have here is Ben Stiller in Greenberg, the latest comedy (or “comedy”) from writer-director Noah Baumbach. He specializes in films that sting like razor burn. 2005’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale is a perceptive, and pitiless, look at a family in crisis, one that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. But the Academy, and most audiences, fled 2007’s Margot at the Wedding, a heartless sibling relations story. How lowdown is the film? So much so that Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, graphically shits herself toward the end. That’s not exactly comfortable moviemaking.

The apparently ageless Jason Leigh (who must have a portrait in the attic, moldering away) has an easier time of it as Greenberg’s one-time lover, who’d rather forget the past, in the new one. But Greenberg is still on Baumbach’s prickly terms. While watching a movie I can usually take the temperature in the room, to see how it’s going over. I couldn’t at Greenberg. The film is so low-key, so eye-level regarding its difficult subject, that for some viewers there will be no laughs at all. Yet a lot of people stayed through the closing credits, which is usually a sign that it worked. In this case, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if my fellow viewers were trying to shake the thing off, so it wouldn’t disrupt bedtime.

What is clear is that, like him or not, Stiller is giving the proverbial performance of a lifetime as Roger Greenberg, who could give Larry David curmudgeon lessons. The actor has been on my critical list for a while. Like Robin Williams, he’s shown worrisome signs of morphing into a “family comedian,” surrounded by CGI dinosaur skeletons and Robert De Niro. Just as Williams broke him fall, however temporarily, in last year’s underrated and little-seen World’s Greatest Dad, so, too, does Stiller arrest his slide in Greenberg. Toxicity agrees with him.

And Greenberg, ChapStick addict and hypochondriac, is an awful person, and not the sentimentally awful kind typically seen in movies. Newly arrived in L.A. from a New York rubber room to house-sit for his well-to-do brother, he immediately flounders, given an inability to drive (or to change out of his cool climate sweaters). Greenberg, the kind of guy who writes letters to airlines and Starbucks to complain, can’t function, and hasn’t much tried since the 80s, when he broke up as his fledgling band just as they were about to sign with a major label. Baumbach hasn’t made him completely hopeless; terrible with his mouth, he’s good with his hands, and in the course of the story Greenberg constructs a not-bad doghouse—for a pet that immediately falls ill when he shows up. But he finds something of an ally, and possible redemption, when in the care of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is more or less forced to take him on as her personal project, and causes him to reevaluate his ambition to “do nothing.”

Greenberg is a fusion of Hollywood, independent, and “mumblecore” influences. The 26-year-old Gerwig is to those zero-budget mumblers what Parker Posey was to American indies in the 90s, and brings a reassuring balkiness and a kind of dignity to the part. Florence, who dreams of being a singer, is self-defeating when it comes to her relationships with men, and the movie is almost clinically detached in its matter-of-factness about sex. On their first, gawky date she and Greenberg make lousy sort-of love, then in another point blank scene she relies on him to help her take care of a prior short, sour relationship. “Hurt people hurt people,” she says, as the two attempt a mutual recuperation.

It’s a breakout performance for the actress and a consolidating one for its star. They’re not alone, though: Humpday star and mumblecore maestro Mark Duplass has a small, seething role as one of Greenberg’s unhappy former bandmates, a group that included Ivan, played by Rhys Ifans. As Greenberg’s nominal best friend, Ifans is the soul of the movie, a guy who has made a stormy peace with the past and is determined to settle in for a calmer future. He has one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about growing old and accommodating, one that really spoke to me. I’ll let you discover it for yourself, along with Greenberg’s coke-fueled rants to a group of twentysomethings, a mix of bile and nostalgia (and bile over feeling nostalgic).

Complementing the tone of the picture is its look, including Ford Wheeler’s spot-on production design (you’ll believe that Florence would live exactly as she does) and Harris Savides’ superb cinematography, cautious but not ignorant of Los Angeles’ pockets of beauty. These are top-tier contributions that nonetheless reflect the film’s pointedly independent flavor. Greenberg stops well short of rom-com clichés to deliver a fuller portrait of an impossible life, one that Ben Stiller makes worth living for the duration.

(Enjoy, or at least appreciate, Greenberg. It’s not in 3D though it is very dimensional. After a misanthropy-inducing winter No Concessions is taking spring break and will return on or about April 23.)

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

Bob, the Film Editor of Popdose, is an Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine. He's also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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