Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is the kind of movie that presents you with troubled, complicated, hardly likeable characters and then invites you to play armchair psychologist. The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, lives in his brother’s empty house in L.A. and is “trying to do noting for a while.” He’s at an age where doing nothing is emotionally risky. There are all sorts of clocks ticking and the need to achieve consumed everyone around him. He is edgy, awkward, tense and uncomfortable; it is hard to be comfortable around him. We learn that he just got out of a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown; he seems on the edge of another.
The critics have been more than willing to play armchair psychologist. A.O. Scott says he is “both heavily scarred and heavily armed.” Nathan Rabin says that he “seems to have stopped developing emotionally when his future radiated the most promise.” Roger Ebert sums him up by saying “when you’re angry with the world and yourself to the same degree, you’re running in place.” Just about any review you read of “Greenberg” will offer you a different analysis of Roger Greenberg’s emotional and/or psychological problems. I wonder what the real psychologists would say.
Stiller meets Greta Gerwig, his brother’s personal assistant, who is responsible for the house where he is staying. She seems to have an almost pathological need to give the people around her what they want (there I go with the armchair psychology again) and has sex with him almost as soon as they meet. It is awkward and sterile; these are two people playing roles. The two dance around each other across the course of the movie; she thinks she can help him, and is drawn to people who need to be helped; he is drawn to her, desperately longs for something real and substantial in his life, but is terrified of the expectations that come with serious relationships. Also, she’s about 15 years younger than him, though this doesn’t seem to bother either of them much.
We learn that Stiller was once part of a band about to hit it big, until he balked at the record contract, and the band split up. 20 years later his bandmates are still bitter, and blame him. That’s a lot of guilt to lay on one guy’s shoulders, and a big decision to have to make when you’re twenty years old. Living with that level of disappointment and unmet expectation may be the key to understanding this character. One of the bandmates, played by Rhys Ifans, has managed to move on. He is a friend to Stiller, who has a hard time making or keeping friends. He is unapologetic for his actions 20 years ago; he is prickly and restless around his old friends, prone to outbursts and narcissistic monologues, and is always suggesting completely inappropriate plans of action. It’s easy to see why most people write him off and stop inviting him to their parties. Only Ifans returns his phone calls, puts up with his tantrums, answers his inappropriate questions, and sticks in it with him. He seems to give a lot to the relationship and get little out of it. He’s a good friend; better than Stiller deserves, but exactly what he needs.
According to Ebert, “You don’t have to like the hero of a movie. But you have to understand him — better than he does himself, in some cases.” I think that’s taking it a little far. Talented screenwriters–and Baumbach certainly has talent– are able to present characters that seem real, and real people are not easily understood. If the character seems real, we will identify with him or her, whether or not we understand them. They will compel us to care about their lives, even when they make terrible choices or misbehave terribly. This is what Baumbach achieves, with considerable help from Stiller; not many actors would be able to realize this character so fully; Stiller does the best work of his career here. Greenberg is hardly a likeable guy, and I came away from the movie feeling like I have nothing more than a surface understanding of his motivations and psychological state. And all the reviews I quoted above seem to fall short in their diagnoses of his neuroses. He is a complicated guy, an opaque mirror, and he is not easily summed up or dismissed. You will not like him. You may not like this movie. But you will find that it stays with you longer than most.