Roger Greenberg has no use for most people and most people have even less use for the self-absorbed single forty year old. Greenberg spends his days intentionally doing nothing as if the clock isn’t ticking, as if he’s got all this time to burn before having to worry about getting his sorry act together. The most purposeful thing this slacker who never grew out of it does on an average day is to fire off letters of complaint to people and businesses who’ve upset him in some way. Everybody from Starbucks to NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg has heard from this guy, whose ability to waste time rehashing past events and crying over spilled milk is astonishing.
When Greenberg’s successful brother Phillip takes his family on a two month trip to Vietnam, the transplanted New Yorker (fresh out of a brief stay in a mental hospital) heads back home to Los Angeles to house-sit, do nothing, and, look up a few old friends. Because his reference points and topics of conversation are stuck so solidly in the early-to-mid-90s, reconnecting with those old friends isn’t merely difficult, it’s an absolute waste of time. Everybody’s moved on but Greenberg. He’s the guy still wearing the Steve Winwood t-shirt and hitting on his ex girlfriend.
Despite the fact that Greenberg’s selfishness essentially ruined his life a decade-and-a-half prior, the forgivable nature, fondness for the old days, and flat-out maturity of former band-mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans from Pirate Radio) enables Greenberg to get at least one bond from the old days going again. Patient, kind, and a bit sympathetic to the rut Greenberg has gotten himself into, Ivan is a perfect sidekick. He chauffeurs the non-driving Greenberg all over town listening to his kvetching about trivial matters and hangs out with him at restaurants where the conversation goes from a comment on youth being wasted on the young to such Greenbergisms as “life is wasted on… people.”
The other, more important connection Greenberg manages to form while in L.A. is with his brother’s family’s assistant, Florence, played by the fetching and sweet Greta Gerwig in a standout performance. Florence is hot off a bad long-term relationship and, seeing the vulnerability deep within the short-fused Greenberg, offers him the best hope for a meaningful relationship he’s ever had. Sure, the sex is as awkward as it gets, and Greenberg is a hot head with overactive defense mechanisms, but understanding that “hurt people hurt people” the wise-beyond her years Florence gets closer to Greenberg than anybody else ever has.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach delivers mostly subtle–but plentiful–laughs in this cautionary tale of self-absorption gone wild starring an impressively subdued Ben Stiller, who gets a lot of laughs without having to beg for them. The bittersweet and very funny Greenberg is a look at what a lifetime of broken dreams and squandered potential can do to a guy and is every bit as insightful and witty as The Squid and the Whale and much less mean-spirited and naval gazy than Margot at the Wedding.
3-1/2 out of 4 stars.