Los Angeles Plays Itself

Sad, funny and acutely self-conscious, Noah Baumbach’s new movie is the sort of mordant character study that people imagine were common in the ’70s. Greenberg is unafraid to project a downbeat worldview or feature an impossible protagonist—I’d be hard put to name one as maddening as the eponymous antihero unless it were Nicole Kidman’s self-absorbed writer in Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Unlike pain-in-the-ass Margot, however, loser Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is also painfully poignant.

Baumbach’s sixth feature is his first to be set in Los Angeles, and the director wastes no time commenting on the milieu. Introduced navigating Sunset Boulevard, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) is the personal assistant to a Hollywood Hills hotshot who is packing up his family for a vacation. The ever-obliging Florence is supposed to do whatever she can for her boss’s high-strung brother, Roger, who, newly released from a mental hospital back East, will be house sitting and looking after the family dog. That blanket “whatever” will cover multitudes—not least of which is Greenberg’s refusal to drive a car.

Making no bid for audience sympathy, Stiller plays Greenberg with the haunted look of a man not more than a single missed cue away from total rage. A failed rock musician turned carpenter, he’s a cranky, opinionated, self-pitying know-it-all. Greenberg explains that his current project is “doing nothing.”

This is Stiller’s juiciest role since he cast himself as a mock Stallone in Tropic Thunder, and here, he’s even more comically self-absorbed. “I’m not one of those preening LA people who wants everything to be about them,” Greenberg maintains while imposing himself on his brutally depressed erstwhile bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). Taken by Ivan to see old friends, Greenberg insists on justifying his diva fuck-up of 15 years before. Later, at Florence’s, Greenberg makes an abrupt pass, which she docilely accepts . . . up to a point. Their relationship, or lack thereof, is the movie’s ongoing disaster.

The Squid and the Whale was one of the most rueful autobiographical movies since The 400 Blows; Greenberg is an oblique sequel as well as a movie that parodies its own intelligence. Not much happens: Ivan takes Greenberg out to Hollywood’s venerable Musso & Frank for his 41st birthday, and once there, Greenberg decides to invite Florence; when she shows, he ducks out to phone his less-than-interested old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who provided the movie’s story and co-produced), then throws a tantrum when birthday cake arrives. In the movie’s set piece, Greenberg returns to his temporary digs to find the house taken over by his niece and her 20-year-old friends. Party time! Increasingly manic, Greenberg can’t stop babbling: “I read an article—aren’t you guys all just fucking on the Internet?”

As befits the son of two writers, Baumbach is a notably literate filmmaker—his Greenberg is a defeated cousin to Saul Bellow’s similarly obsessed Moses Herzog. Greenberg is no less witty than Baumbach’s previous features, but it’s more adroitly off-handed. In addition to employing the artfully artless Gerwig, Baumbach has adopted a useful degree of mumblecordian casualness. Greenberg is a movie of throwaway one-liners and evocatively nondescript locations. The style is observational, the drama is understated, and when the time comes, it knocks you out with the subtlest of badda-booms.

Greenberg was written and directed by Noah Baumbach; and stars Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. Rated R. Select theaters.

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