This time, I read David Denby's inexplicably fawning review and I thought maybe something had changed. Greenberg is the least inhuman of Baumbach's movies, I'll give you that, but it ain't much. Generosity of spirit and empathy don't come easy to this guy.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), is a 40 year old New York crank and ex-band member, fresh out of a stay in a mental hospital, who moves to the house of his successful brother in LA to do nothing for a while. I loved Ben Stiller in Permanent Midnight, where he showed he can be a very good dramatic actor. Here he seems to be in genuine psychic pain. He looks like he is chewing tacks. He is gaunt and tightly coiled around himself, a monstrously self-involved, world-class neurotic. This is very impressive for the first fifteen minutes, but soon it gets tiresome because Baumbach does not allow him, nor any of the other characters, to show another side to his personality. Greenberg is apparently unredeemable. Baumbach is gifted at writing dialogue for monsters of self-absorption and, in small doses, this has the ring of truth. Greenberg's exchanges with his old bandmate, the wonderful Rhys Ifans, and his old girlfriend, a restrained and sympathetic (for the first time in her career) Jennifer Jason Leigh, are bundles of concentrated egotism, but that's all there is. The way Greenberg treats Florence, his brother's assistant (Greta Gerwig, fresh and charming) is breathtakingly hideous. The sympathetic characters in this movie allow this man to abuse them over and over and they almost become unsympathetic by being such pushovers. I was hoping someone would deck this asshole in the face, or put him in his place, but people suffer him like saints and the fact that he is just out of a mental crisis does not seem to fully justify their masochism. Thus, everybody becomes exasperating. Baumbach is trying to love his characters a little more, just like Greenberg is learning to cope with other people's feelings, but he's got a long way to go. We're making progress, but it feels grudging. There are a couple of very uncomfortable sex scenes between Greenberg and Florence that could have been an opportunity to show a glimmer of unguarded feeling. But they are designed to make us squirm. This insistence on being uncompromisingly unsympathetic feels immature.
Now, I hate mankind as much as anybody (well, maybe a little more), I don't expect movies to be full of rainbows and sprinkles, and I hate "uplifting" movies, but that doesn't mean that I enjoy meanspiritedness. Baumbach is miserly with the amount of slack he is willing to cut his characters. If a filmmaker is so cruel to his own characters, so judgmental, how can we relate to them?
Yet Baumbach's biggest shortcoming is that he is not funny enough. He elicits the kind of laughter that curdles in your throat. It's meant to by dry and sardonic but it feels petty. At the end of the movie a woman behind me said, "this is the next Woody Allen", a totally misguided assessment, for when Woody Allen was Baumbach's age, he was one of the funniest people in the world. His alter ego was also a neurotic monster but he was a total charmer. You could believe that the lovely Diane Keaton/Mariel Hemingway/Mia Farrow would fall in love with a pest like him, because he charmed them with his brilliant humor, and he was totally open to love, a self-hating romantic optimist. Alas, this is not the case with Baumbach. His characters always seem to be recoiling from love as if it was poison. This would be interesting if it was tempered by either wit or tenderness, but these qualities are mostly absent from his films.