Ben Stiller (Roger Greenberg) in Greenberg

Roger Greenberg, the titular character of Noah Baumbach’s new comedy Greenberg, is the type of person you would probably want to avoid if you had occasion to know him. As written by Baumbach and portrayed (in a sincerely insufferable way) by Ben Stiller, Greenberg is self-deluding, self-righteous, self-absorbed, and with no capacity for self-deprecation. At the beginning, Greenberg is recovering from a nervous breakdown while housesitting at his successful brother’s spacious Los Angeles home (complete with dog and visiting pool-users). 


He wiles away the time trying to reconnect with former friends who have good reason to be wary—in turns out years ago, Greenberg and his band buddies were on the verge of signing a major recording contract—that Greenberg scuttled. He also attempts to reignite an old flame (Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason-Leigh nicely uninterested) while striking up a very unlikely friendship with the brother’s assistant (Greta Gerwig), which develops during their mutual concern for the dog’s illness. Her sympathetic, agreeable nature attracts Greenberg while simultaneously scaring him; his needy, neurotic nature and desire to “do nothing” attract her. In addition, Greenberg hooks up with one friend from the past (Rhys Ifans) who still tolerates him; again, this tolerance isn’t easy given Greenberg’s proclivity towards tirades, insensitive behavior and overall boorishness. These unflattering attributes are on full display during an uncomfortable birthday party, which results in a full-scale tantrum, replete with some memorable epithets.


Consequently, Greenberg is a difficult character to warm to, for both the film’s other characters and the audience. Given this, it’s a wonder that the film is as engaging as it is which is mainly due to the efforts of a top-flight supporting cast led by the appealing Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. They don’t have the easiest jobs in that they have to make us believe that their characters would find something endearing, and even possibly redeeming in the abrasive Greenberg. Ifans, in particular has some fine seriocomic scenes with Stiller, rehashing past and present regrets. Stiller is a little more problematic; at the beginning I felt as if I were watching Stiller a little removed from his character, perhaps even commenting on him. I have to say that Stiller (and the character) crept up on me during the film so that by the end, I was hoping for him to take some responsibility and perhaps extend his concern into care for others. To the movie’s credit, there are no epiphanies but a believable step or two forward.