Everyone knows a baffling couple like the one that takes shape in Greenberg, Noah Baumbach's defiantly unsettling new film. One half of the couple is a genuinely lovely person. The other seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. You come home from being at a dinner party with them stumped as to why the lovely person hasn't noticed that their spouse or partner is a total stinker. You ponder, maybe for the first time, the term co-dependency. Mostly you wonder how this pair ended up together.
The stinker in Greenberg is the title character, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a misanthropic, depressed carpenter who returns to his native Los Angeles after many years in New York. He's just gotten out of a mental institution and his intention is to spend at least six weeks dogsitting for his wealthy brother but otherwise doing exactly "nothing" on purpose. "That's brave, at our age," observes his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Baumbach's wife and story collaborator, here looking justifiably distracted).
This conversation takes place at a casual garden party, one of the most skillfully edited scenes in the movie. Baumbach playfully plucks out Greenberg's main impressions of the party and stitches them together out of chronological order. First, Greenberg gets insulted, or so he thinks, by an old friend Eric (Humpday's Mark Duplass) whom he used to be in a band with until their big break was squashed by Greenberg's refusal to sign a record contract. Then he hears Beth is recently separated. A lightbulb goes on in his head she might be interested in him again and he seeks her out, suggests they have a drink sometime. Baumbach wants us to see that from Greenberg's narcissistic perspective, nothing happened at the party except the things that happened to him.
But as cranky as Greenberg is, he's also lonely. He tries out the few old friends available to him in L.A., including another old bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, lovely as a gentle soul who has learned to live with disappointment), and finds their level of interest in him dissatisfying. The truth is, his old friends know Greenberg to be self-absorbed to the point of parody and they hold him at arm's length.
Alas poor, naive Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) has no walls, no boundaries, no protective gear at all. She works as personal assistant to Roger's brother and sister-in-law, doing odd jobs and taking care of their German Shepherd, Mahler. She'll even do errands for Roger, who doesn't drive (an act of civil disobedience in L.A.). Florence is sloppily generous with her body sleeping, it seems, with whoever asks and at the same time is afraid to ask for much for herself, even her overdue paycheck. Whenever she has to merge into traffic, she mutters a timid little prayer "Are you going to let me in?"
That's essentially her relationship with Roger as well. Having nothing better to do, he calls her, makes a pass and she decides almost right away that she wants him to let her in, to really like her. She's a sucker for a wounded soul and for some reason, she finds Greenberg appealing. It can't be the sex: these are the least loving, least sexy, driest sex scenes ever filmed. (He tops off a halfhearted tour of her body by asking if that's a cold sore on her lip.) Like practically every female character ever created by Woody Allen, she inexplicably desires a jerk she feels sorry for.
"I'm impressed by you," she tells Greenberg at one point. This line of thinking pretty much causes her best friend's head to explode and the entire audience to recoil in a collective say what? Should one judge a movie's artistic merits based on how annoyed you are by its characters? No. If likable is what you're looking for, it is inadvisable to trot off to see a Baumbach movie (Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale featured comparable creeps). That Greenberg has merits is undeniable. Gerwig, a funny mix of Kate Winslet and the joyfully ditzy young Diane Keaton, should end up a star. Stiller dials back his own schtick and deserves to be taken seriously; the scene where he awkwardly snorts cocaine (more Woody Allen references) with a bunch of college kids is brilliantly agonizing.
Yet the movie has the curious vagueness of intent that makes so many "meaningful" works of fiction not all that meaningful. I'd be happy to accept Greenberg as a portrait of the terrible insecurities and needs that bring the lovely person and the stinker together. But I doubt that Baumbach intended to make a dramatized version of Smart Women, Foolish Choices. It seems out of character, and the tone is not that of a cautionary tale. I worry that he sees Greenberg as a modern, ennui-filled love story and believes, like Florence, that Greenberg can be saved by the love of a good woman. Not a chance.