With “The Squid and the Whale,” it looked like Noah Baumbach had finally turned the corner as a filmmaker, eschewing his usual smugness in favor of real, heartfelt emotions. But it’s looking more like an anomaly, as his ensuing films, “Margot at the Wedding” and his latest bit of misanthropy, “Greenberg,” have disappointingly marked a return to his glib, overly ironic ways.
With “The Squid and the Whale,” it looked like Noah Baumbach had finally turned the corner as a filmmaker, eschewing his usual smugness in favor of real, heartfelt emotions.
But it’s looking more like an anomaly, as his ensuing films, “Margot at the Wedding” and his latest bit of misanthropy, “Greenberg,” have disappointingly marked a return to his glib, overly ironic ways.
Baumbach almost strives to repel us, as he assaults with an array of increasingly annoying characters and paper-thin storylines that fail to go anywhere interesting or surprising.
That’s especially true of “Greenberg,” easily his most annoying film since his debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” which is exactly what I was doing through every torturous minute of it.
It’s a toss-up as to what’s more grating: Baumbach’s dry, hipster humor or the bumbling performance by Ben Stiller in the title role. Both work overtime at being off-putting in telling a not-so-funny tale of a New Yorker fresh off a nervous breakdown coming to Hollywood to baby-sit his wealthy brother’s house.
That’s where the narcissistic pessimist Roger Greenberg hooks up with his sibling’s personal assistant, Florence, a drippy, spineless sack of potatoes played without passion by Greta Gerwig.
She’s the undisputed queen of mumblecore (or, what I like to call, mumble-bore), but that doesn’t dispel the fact that Gerwig is utterly lacking in charisma and talent.
She also has zero chemistry with Stiller, who is upstaged by an unwieldy hairdo recalling a middle-aged Arthur Fonzarelli. But his locks are infinitely more interesting than his character, a lazy slug who can’t do a thing for himself.
That’s where Florence comes in. Greenberg doesn’t drive and apparently doesn’t believe in cabs or buses, so Florence is constantly called upon to be his lackey, running errands and chauffeuring him across Hollywood at his whim. He treats her like dirt, too, viciously insulting her when he’s not leading her on romantically.
Their awkward sex life is pretty much a metaphor for the movie, as Greenberg regularly instigates foreplay, only to suddenly stop just as Florence is beginning to respond.
But then that’s how Baumbach rolls. The more obnoxious the character, the happier he gets. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be intriguing if – and only if – the character is being fleshed out with a hint of underlying charm, as Larry David has proven for nearly a decade on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Given how closely Stiller’s dad, Jerry, worked with David on “Seinfeld,” you’d think Stiller would be wise to that. But, no, his Greenberg is all surface, and woefully shallow at that.
It’s nice to see him trying to stretch, though, especially after watching him embarrassingly go through the motions in big-budget turkeys like the “Night at the Museum” flicks. But good intentions don’t always translate to good performances.
Other than a nice cameo by Baumbach’s wife and co-writer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Greenberg’s old flame, the only actor with a semblance of a pulse is Rhys Ifans as Greenberg’s one and only friend.
Where Stiller and Gerwig have zero range, Ifans deftly fleshes out his minor character in major ways by subtly revealing his frustration with Greenberg and his many eccentricities, which years ago cost him a record deal when his pal walked away from their band just as they stood on the cusp of stardom.
Sort of like Baumbach, who similarly retreated when he was on the verge of making it big after “The Squid and the Whale.” But unlike his malevolent alter ego, you harbor faint hope he’ll eventually see the error of his self-indulgent ways.
Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
GREENBERG (R for nudity, language and sexual situations.) Cast includes Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. 1.5 stars out of 4.