I think my thoughts on this movie are summed up best by my father’s comments as we were leaving the theater: “I can’t believe they made this movie! I wonder how they did it.” So passionate, interesting, intellectual, and, yes, thoughtful, this is not a movie you generally see at an AMC. Maybe a festival, but not a multiplex. And it was crowded, too!
Beside the bravery of writer-director Noah Baumbach in creating such a personal, heartfelt effort, let’s talk about whether it worked. The story of misanthrope Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a burned-out dude approaching forty-one and hanging out and house-sitting in LA is not exactly new to me. I must know tens of guys like this, shoot, in many ways I am Roger Greenberg. While I should have been on the edge of my seat, watching myself on screen like that, I was strangely bored by a middling plot. I’ll say this, the story had moments. Wonderful moments.
Greenberg’s Los Angeles is the one I deal with on a daily basis and not the stuff of Hollywood dreams. When sometimes girlfriend Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) mumbles “will you let me in?” to every driver she passes as she drives errands, I laughed out loud. Another moment at Musso and Frank’s, Greenberg is presented a birthday cake by the staff and he freaks out at his friend Ivan. The anger and campiness of the moment came through—I suffered with Greenberg, although I would have set that moment at El Coyote. Meanwhile, the frequent shots of swimming, playing, and partying in the backyard pool, which form the film’s spine, are reminiscent of the backyard diving scenes in The Graduate, another superb Los Angeles film.
There is an amazing moment early on in the film when Greenberg and friend Ivan approach a “barbeque” and realize it’s a kids’ birthday party. It was a great visual joke and it really captured Greenberg’s character, habitually late to the wrong party—I laughed out loud. Stiller’s performance is quite good. He doesn’t give in to jokes and plays the character, warts and all, with humor and strangeness. In a movie as devoid as heroes as this, he did an amazing job making us sympathize with a character who was completely unsympathetic. As he changes and becomes more flexible, the audience comes with him on the journey. Stiller is at once an unselfconscious character actor playing a totally self-conscious dude. He plays that so well, gosh, the two almost cancel each other out.
Beyond Stiller’s performance and these beautiful moments of pure awkwardness and self-loathing, the movie didn’t work. The plot was boring and the other characters around Greenberg were merely caricatures. They were people the audience didn’t care about and the screenwriter didn’t care about really either. Or if he did, his caring didn’t come through in the final picture. They felt like props—LA garden party gnomes, significant only for their Southern California specific sadness.
Baumbach made a deliciously honest movie, one whose authentic feelings and emotions came through the staginess of some of the dialogue. I hope that for the next one, he broadens his reach beyond overeducated men approaching forty. After all, if he can get a green light for this extended navel gaze, there is no telling what else he can direct.