American 21st-century post-traumatic stress and economic desolation gets filtered through the mid-life crisis of Ben Stiller’s troubled character Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s edgy romantic comedy, Greenberg. There are plenty of laughs to be had — both easy and queasy — as Roger attempts to reintegrate into society after a stint in a New York mental hospital. With the purpose of “doing nothing,” the medicated Roger house-sits at his brother Phillip’s comfortable Los Angeles home. Riddled with anxiety and OCD behavior, Roger slips into a romantic liaison with his brother’s personal assistant Florence, played without inhibitions by impressive newcomer Greta Gerwig (The House of the Devil).
Greenberg is about people in so much pain that they can’t help but lash out. Baumbach and wife/co-story writer Jennifer Jason Leigh have tapped into America’s chasm of disbelief. The film fearlessly stares into a social abyss that threatens to swallow up a country preoccupied with doing nothing.
Mentally unstable characters are a staple for Noah Baumbach, whose films (Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale) take an empathetic and humorous approach toward abnormal social behavior — as in Roger’s clumsy seduction of Florence, which falls apart just as quickly as it began, mostly because neither Florence nor Roger have the patience to continue.
Greenberg spends his time writing carefully composed complaint letters to companies like American Airlines about a seat that wouldn’t recline. Coming from a guy who carries the burden of having been responsible for ruining his college rock band’s shot at the big time 15 years earlier, we understand Greenberg’s nagging need to set things right. On his short list is rekindling a friendship with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and former band mate Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans). Both Beth and Ivan, however, are married with families; they’ve moved on with their lives.
In Greenberg, everyone is “middle-class” and tragically ignores the desperation that seethes beneath the layers of iPhone-Facebook interactions. Roger Greenberg is a tragic character barely able to maintain any kind of relationship. Viewers will sympathize with him to different degrees. You might watch his behavior and think to yourself that you shouldn’t yell at people you care about. You could also watch the film and be inspired to write a 3,000-word letter to your boss about how unfairly you’re treated at work. Sure, it’ll get you fired, but at least you’ll have something off your chest.