As New Yorker Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), recovering from a recent mental breakdown, settles into his new role in Los Angeles as his brother’s house-sitter, Stiller as an actor takes us right up to the edge, jumps off and dares us to reach out to catch him before he plummets out of reach. It's a balls-out move, especially considering that his Greenberg is a loathsome person.
Notice I said person and not character, which makes what Stiller does here so special. Greenberg is a fully realized being, not just a character or a collection of traits and tics. He's the kind of person most of us would spend a few moments with before walking away in disgust or utter frustration.
At a party he hosts at his brother’s trendy showplace, a party that quickly spins out of control, Greenberg holds court with a group of current hipsters intent on casually and cruelly ignoring the aging dud. He too loudly takes their drugs and proclaims them a Lost Generation because they have been coddled too much, leaving them ill-prepared for the real world.
Of course, it’s lost on Greenberg that he isn’t that far removed from their parents and he himself is the perfect example of someone from that generation who has proven to be equally ill-suited for any semblance of human interaction.
I have been hard-pressed to find a comparable character from recent film, a character so off-putting yet tied to a performance that begs audience members to bear with this level of obnoxiousness.
Greenberg has a couple of unlikely spiritual cousins, which bodes well for Stiller down the road. His work here rivals that of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck made Ford a pure weasel that audiences couldn’t shake, even when he shared the screen with Brad Pitt as the legendary outlaw. That performance was a master class on dramatizing the most unsavory palatable and distinctly human, and Stiller accomplishes a remarkably similar feat with Greenberg.
Of course, the difference is that Affleck’s Ford was repulsive and unloved. Greenberg, though, has someone willing to invest some degree of affection on him. His relationship with Florence (Mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant, offers him a romantic refuge, an oasis that he seems unable to reach due to his leaky-boat personality — his boat hasn’t just sprung a leak or two; it’s been repeatedly torpedoed by his own weaponry.
Lord knows why, but it could be that she’s just as emotionally fragile and adrift in the sea of disaffection and ennui that defines her generation. There’s a 15-year gulf between Greenberg and Florence that probably matters far less than the psychological divide.
The dynamic between Greenberg and Florence recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and the seeming mismatch of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), but in that case, Lena, who bestows unconditional love on the emotionally stunted Barry, had that love to give. She was idealized by Barry and the film, almost to a degree of mythic proportions.
No one, especially not Greenberg, would ever place Florence on such a pedestal. She, along with everyone in Greenberg, is damaged or ill-formed, but in the pairing of Florence and Greenberg’s friend and former band-mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), the film seeks to create the perfect instrument to offer Greenberg the redemption he would never be able to achieve on his own.
Going against her own best interests, Florence is unable to let Greenberg sink alone. After several failed dates and conflicts stemming from their bumbling attempts to get treatment for his brother’s ailing dog, she remains close enough to reel him in.
Yet, Ifans, while not a romantic or even a particularly bromantic foil, is the one who shines quietly alongside Stiller. So much history binds these men, not only a shared past, but the intimate bonds that allow each to comment on the choices the other has made with no apparent fear of pushing the relationship past the point of no return (although Greenberg certainly challenges that notion at every turn).
It is through Stiller and Ifans that Greenberg transcends what we expect from comedy in contemporary terms and digs back into the classic, tragic roots of the form. And Ifans becomes the standard for a new school, actually a return to the old school, if you will, of comedy.
Stiller remains a comic performer shackled, sometimes too tightly, to the joke in his head. When that interior approach works, as it does here, he is able to stun us, but more often than not the jokes fail to draw laughs out of us as a purely physical release. There are more physical comedians like Jack Black or Cedric the Entertainer who use either outrageousness or sublime grace to tickle us. Ifans, though, might be working on a more soulful level, burrowing into our hearts, again where laughter stems from the everyday drama.
That brand of human comedy is the territory where writer-director Noah Baumbach has staked his claim, and in recent fare like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, he has torn the scabs off the most sensitive nerve endings in the hope that we would be able to laugh through the pain. It is as difficult as the challenge of Stiller’s performance, but he does it time and again, just like Stiller, daring us to race to the edge with him and hold on as he dives over.
Maybe it is the audacity of such a move that compels us to risk everything to grab these desperate men before they tumble headlong into the abyss. Grade: A-
Opens March 26. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.