Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the mopey, neurotic protagonist of Greenberg, returns to Los Angeles for the first time in 15 years to house sit for his brother, who is vacationing in Vietnam with his family. Roger lives in New York, where he works as a carpenter and recently had to be institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. Back on the west coast, he reconnects with old friends Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Eric (Mark Duplass), who are still bitter that Roger abandoned their band just as they were poised to land a record deal.
Roger also starts an affair with Florence (the terrific Greta Gerwig), who runs errands for his brother's family and is getting over a recent break-up. Florence is a lot younger than Roger, but she's just as emotionally damaged and eager for companionship. They seem to share an instant rapport,but the first time they try to have sex (in a wonderfully awkward scene), her heart just isn't into it. Later, Roger will be cruel to her, lashing out from a place of false superiority, but his anger is misdirected. "Hurt people hurt people," Florence tells him, and the sentence becomes a mantra for the movie.
Greenberg was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose previous pictures (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) also centered on wounded, sometimes petty protagonists. But Greenberg, Baumbach's best, most accessible film, has a maturity and focus his other movies sometimes lacked. Baumbach has a gift for capturing the way real people talk and interact, and even when the movie reaches for symbolism (Roger goes for a swim in his brother's pool but can only dog- paddle and almost drowns), it never feels heavy handed or artificial.
Stiller doesn't get much credit (or box-office results) for his dramatic work, but his performance in Greenberg is an acting high-wire feat. Roger is a self-important, self-obsessed man who directs his energies into writing complaint letters to Starbucks and American Airlines. He's so wrapped up in himself, he's completely oblivious to what anyone else might be thinking. When he goes to dinner with an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's wife, who also co-wrote the story), he can't believe she doesn't regard their relationship as a landmark in her life and only barely remembers the details. Consideration for others is simply beyond his reach.
And yet, as unlikable as Roger is, Stiller finds a way to make you see past his bitterness and sympathize with his aimlessness. You don't like him, but you feel his pain. Greenberg is a comedy (a scene in which Roger attends a boisterous college party and pitches a fit over the music is marvelously funny), but it's a sad, rueful comedy about disappointment and regret - about a man in his forties who hasn't made peace with the fact that life rarely turns out exactly the way you thought it would.
Greenberg (*** out of ****) opens Friday March 26 at the Regal South Beach in Miami; Gateway in Fort Lauderdale; Palace, Delray Beach and Gardens in Palm Beach.