If you have ever wondered what the point of Ben Stiller is — and who hasn’t, at some stage in their life? Who hasn’t woken at 4 a.m., asking over and over: what is the point of Ben Stiller? What, what? — here is the answer: Roger Greenberg. There is nothing much to like about Roger Greenberg. He’s a narcissistic, prickly, nervy pain in the butt. But Stiller’s astonishing performance makes him so true that, if we can’t care exactly, we are fascinated by him, and his pained and painful struggle simply to get through the day. Just a look and we understand more about Greenberg than Greenberg does himself. I would not have guessed Stiller had it in him; not in a million years. He’s one cheeky little Focker all right. He may even be the cheekiest little Focker of all time.
This is written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding) whom I like, if only because he never gives us anyone to like, which goes against every Hollywood axiom there is, but always results in something daring and bracing. I should add that his wife, the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who gives their daughter ‘Jason’ as a middle name; who, who?), is given the story credit. Anyway, it’s being billed as a comedy and, although there are some good funny lines, it’s actually a sad little film. Roger Greenberg is a 40-year-old one-time musician who blew a recording contract in his youth and now works as a carpenter whose only hobby appears to be sending off letters of petty complaint to global corporations. He is wiry, uptight, wounding and wounded. He’s the kind of guy who tells his friends what others are saying about them, for their own good. ‘Hurt people hurt people’ is the therapy-speak mantra passed from character to character with the hurt as both noun and verb but not past participle. Past participles always miss out in the movies. It’s a shame.
Greenberg has lived in New York for 15 years but, after a nervous breakdown and a stint in a psychiatric hospital — perhaps the world’s worst psychiatric hospital, as he appears to have no tools to deal with his own misery — he returns home to LA to house-sit for his rich brother. Here, he meets up with old friends, looks after his brother’s German Shepherd, Mahler (Sam), and embarks on a romance with his brother’s PA, Florence (Greta Gerwig). In the normal Hollywood run of things, Florence would warm his heart and mend him in some way, just as Jack Nicholson’s heart is always warmed and mended in some way, usually by Diane Keaton, but this is not a normal Hollywood romance. Greenberg’s defence mechanism is aggression. Florence’s is passivity. This romance is horribly clumsy: a series of awkward pauses, awkward sex, awkward walk-outs, and then reconnecting over the dog, who gets sick. Ms Gerwig is also astonishing. Florence is vapid and blurry, I suppose, but you always know someone is in there, and how lonely she is. She simply lacks intent, as does Greenberg (but not the dog, who wants to get better).
‘I’m trying to do nothing right now,’ Greenberg tells anyone who asks, which isn’t very often. Like Jeff Daniels in Squid, he is determined to reject a would which, he feels, has rejected him and, unable to engage, he treats those who do so with complete contempt. But he is not thriving, not swimming. As it is, he can barely doggy paddle his way across his brother’s pool and, when forced to make a decision, goes on the attack. It’s his former band-mate and friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who probably hits it on the head when he says, ‘It’s huge, settling for the life you hadn’t planned.’ Greenberg has failed to mature. Does he? Will he? It’s not that I don’t want to say, just that I’m not sure I can say. This film has no plot as such. Because Baumbach allows his characters to push and pull the action along, there is no linear conclusion. It may be very French in this way.
You may well ask: why would I want to go see a film about such a miserable, self-obsessed fellow? Well, you don’t have to, no one is going to force you, but it is intelligent, the writing is razor sharp, the characters are not types (apart from the rich people who, disappointingly, rather are) and Stiller is magnificent. Greenberg is a fantastically complex part to play, but Stiller’s performance is superbly nuanced, convincing and brave. I am grateful I can now sleep through the night, although, having said that, I am starting to wonder about Adam Sandler. What is the point of him? What, what?