American 21st-century post-traumatic stress and economic desolation gets filtered through the midlife crisis of Ben Stiller’s troubled character Roger Greenberg in this edgy romantic comedy that puts a premium on how we treat one another. There are plenty of laughs to be had—both easy and queasy—as Roger attempts to ease back into society after a stint in a New York mental hospital.
With the openly disclosed purpose of “doing nothing,” the medicated Roger house-sits at his brother Phillip’s comfortable Los Angeles home while said brother (Chris Messina) and his wife vacation for six weeks in Vietnam.
Riddled with anxiety and OCD behavior, Roger slips into a romantic liaison with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (uninhibitedly played by impressive newcomer Greta Gerwig of The House of the Devil). The awkward relationship serves as a sounding board for Roger’s constant fears and emotional concerns. It also enables Florence as a force of nature whose self-deprecating needs set up a post-collapse thematic mantra she learned from her singing coach: “hurt people, hurt people.”
Indeed, Greenberg is about people in so much pain that they can’t help but lash out with uncontrolled defense mechanisms. Baumbach and wife/co-story writer Jennifer Jason Leigh have tapped into America’s chasm of disbelief. The film fearlessly stares into a social abyss that threatens to swallow up a country forced into doing nothing.
Mentally unstable characters are a staple for director Noah Baumbach, whose films (Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale) take an empathetic and humorous approach toward abnormal social behavior.
The elephant in the Greenberg room involves the graphicness of Roger’s clumsy seduction of Florence shortly after the two have shared a beer from the same bottle during their first date—in the comfort of her humble living room. In a blink, there’s a kiss and Roger disrobes Florence from her snug sports bra and pants to bury his face in her nether regions while she lackadaisically stares up at the ceiling making an abstract comment about trains. The spontaneous scene of acted-on attraction hits you fast, and opens up the film to an impulsive commentary on post-modern relationships. There’s danger here. It also identifies the characters as sexual beings who do more than talk. Just as quickly as it began, the lovemaking falls apart. Neither Florence nor Roger have the patience to continue.
Greenberg spends his time building a house for his brother’s sickly dog Mahler, when he isn’t writing carefully composed complaint letters to companies such as American Airlines about a seat that wouldn’t recline. He’s an impotent critic of society.
Coming from a guy who carries the burden of having ruined his college rock band’s shot at the big time 15 years earlier—a defining event in his arrested development—we understand Greenberg’s nagging need to set things right. On his short list is rekindling a friendship with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Leigh), and former bandmate Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans). Both Beth and Ivan are married with families. They’ve moved on with their lives. It’s a progression that Greenberg—the aging man-boy—can only approach from his myopic viewpoint. The voices in his head shout so loudly that he isn’t able to hear what the people near him are saying about their relation to him.
Greenberg is a meta film that makes its points within the context of a society where everyone is “middle-class” and tragically ignores the desperation that seethes beneath the layers of their iPhone-Facebook-interaction. Roger Greenberg is a tragic character barely able to maintain any kind of relationship. The degree to which an audience sympathizes or empathizes with him is a self-reflexive proposition. You might watch his behavior and think to yourself that you shouldn’t yell at people you care about. You could also watch the film and be inspired to write a 3,000-word letter to your boss about how unfair you’re treated at work. Sure it’ll get you fired, but you’ll have something off your chest.