The worst thing about a mid life crisis? You are only half way through. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is 40 years old, unemployed, house-sitting for his rich brother and a minefield of mildly autistic behaviour. Obnoxious, confrontational, irritable and self absorbed in that that way that only the middle class and middle aged can be, Greenberg is our unreliable and morally schizophrenic guide through the sun scorched Los Angeles landscape to which he has returned after years away. The trouble is that Greenberg is delusional and his attempts to connect to the past with old loves and friends (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans) are often misguided.
Redemption arrives in the youthful, kooky shape of his brother’s assistant Florence (mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig), with whom Greenberg starts an on/off fling. True to form, Greenberg sabotages any potential happiness with his curious mixture of apathy, pomposity and callousness, but can free spirit Florence transcend his behaviour?
Writer/director Noah Baumbach here teams up with actress turned screenwriter Jennifer Jason Leigh (whose previous screenwriting credit The Anniversary Party, is undoubtedly bears an influence on Greenberg) with unsettling and honest effect. As his previous films The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding have shown us, Baumbach’s gig is the withering, unacceptable and downright unpleasant face of educated America. He’s in to skewering a certain breed of psychiatrist coach-surfing, self-justifying, pseudo intellectual elite. Greenberg is his most successful attempt to date of doing this for a variety of reasons.
Stiller’s Greenberg is a masterful creation – awkward, uncharitable, a comic creation sculptured from the bitterest of woods. As screenwriters Baumbach and Leigh never take the easy option, Greenberg’s is a journey from idiocy into stupidity, one touched by the kindness of a stranger. Greta Gerwig’s Florence is equally nuanced – sloppy, rootless and oddly aimless for someone who looks after the needs of others. Harris Savides cinematography finds a sort of hazy inspiration in the work of Vilmos Zsigmond’s early 1970s work and James ‘LCD Soundsystem’ Murphy’s nutty, uncharacteristic soundtrack is a joy. Post Woody Allen’s comic acting heyday this is the most (squirming) fun you will ever have with a neurotic.