Greenberg (Focus Features, R)

It has moments of hilarity but those moments come too infrequently to sustain interest.

 

Greenberg finds Noah Baumbach once again examining his favorite subject—dysfunctional families with money—and the tale grows more tired with each telling. The film has a fine cast and great location photography and production design but is fatally hamstrung by a story which requires the audience to care about a fundamentally unsympathetic and (worse) uninteresting central character.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) just got out of a mental institution and is spending some time at the Hollywood home of his obviously successful brother Phillip (Chris Messina) who is off to a vacation in Vietnam with his wife and kids. Phillip’s personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a 25-year-old aspiring singer, is keeping track of the house while the family is on their vacation. Wow, could you ask for a more obvious setup to have two people become involved with each other?

Florence is cute and thoughtful and responsible but lacks self-confidence, has a bad case of the round heels, and still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life (judging from what we see, she doesn’t have a future in music). OK, but she’s young enough to be still trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in the world out. Gerwig deserves a lot of credit for making Florence interesting although it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone could be as gullible as the screenplay demands her to be.

Florence can solicit our consideration on the basis of youth, but at age 40 Roger has to rely on an old screenwriting staple—Hollywood mental illness. It’s an infinitely flexible condition which can be distinguished from ordinary bad behavior by the number of prescription bottles associated with the sufferer and the fact that the other characters mention it frequently.

You may have noticed that this condition most frequently strikes upper-class white people and Roger is no exception—money in the family frees the screenwriters (Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also appears in a small role) from having to explain things like who paid for that stay in the mental hospital (Roger was a self-employed carpenter in New York City, an occupation not ordinarily associated with generous mental-health benefits).

Greenberg gradually builds up a picture of Roger and his backstory through his interactions with other characters, mainly Florence and his old band mate Ivan (Rhys Ilfans, in a nice turn) who’s struggling with issues of his own. One thing we learn is that years ago Roger spoiled the band’s chances for a recording contract, which suggests that maybe he’s always been a self-centered prick. We also see that Roger takes himself terribly seriously and writes irate complaint letters to everyone from Michael Bloomberg (mayor of New York City) to Starbucks and the Hollywood Pet Taxi.

As a portrait of self-obsession, Greenberg has its moments but the film never gives us sufficient reason to care about Roger—instead we see scene after scene establishing him as a casually cruel, egotistical jerk who resents anyone who is happier or more successful or just more comfortable in their own skin than he is (categories which include almost everyone he meets).

Of course if you’re interested in a carefully-observed study of a rudderless middle-aged man with the emotional maturity of a teenager (and this type of character is a staple of contemporary American film, so someone must find the subject appealing), then you may find much to appreciate in Stiller’s performance. Unfortunately Baumbach doesn’t have the courage to make Roger entirely unlikeable and tacks on a half-hearted attempt to show some emotional growth in a character previously distinguished almost entirely by narcissism.

I will say one thing for Greenberg, however—it has moments of hilarity, almost always at the expense of Stiller’s character. It’s a mean kind of laughter based on assumed superiority, not dissimilar to the pleasure of making fun of the less gifted singers auditioning for American Idol. But those moments come too infrequently to sustain interest in a feature-length film and soon your thoughts will be straying to matters such as why you bought a ticket for the privilege of spending two hours in the company of a person almost devoid of redeeming characteristics when you could have been scrubbing out the bathtub or alphabetizing the soups in your kitchen cabinets. | Sarah Boslaugh

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