Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is pissed off. He's pissed off at Starbucks, The L.A. Times, Pet Taxis and most of all himself. He's recovering from a midlife crisis at his brothers house and, like most of Baumbach's intellectual whiners, his crisis isn't totally over. While trying to reconnect with old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) he also forms an awkward relationship with housekeeper Florence... and realises that at 40, he's nowhere he wants to be. And it's marvelous.
Whereas The Squid And The Whale (2005) and Margot At The Wedding (2007) focused on conflicts within families (husband vs. wife and sister vs. sister respectively), Greenberg is much more focused on singular characters. In the hands of a lesser writer/director the focus would have been on Greenberg and Florence would have been ham-fistedly introduced as a redemptive love interest. But in the hands of Baumbach she becomes as well developed as Greenberg himself, who actually appears as a secondary character; the first (largely silent) ten minutes having been spent on Florence. The attention to detail and care taken with crafting each character is what makes Greenberg shine. Every declaration of love, hate, regret, anxiety and selfishness is real. Many have a problem with liking the characters in Noah Baumbach movies and it's true that he doesn't always draw them with a silver lining. But that's life. Greenberg is self-absorbed and pissed off at the world - but he's also trying, against the odds, to make things work. Whether you like them or not (and I'm not convinced it matters) the characters are always interesting; their dialogue naturalistic, beautiful and hurtful - sometimes in the same scene. There are several moments of intensely emotional awkwardness which some may find uncomfortable. But to me, that's just Baumbach on good form.
Edging away from the white-washed, Rohmer-inspired tones of Margot At The Wedding, Greenberg is shot by master DoP Harris Savides (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007) who softens the blow of bustling L.A. by restraining the colour and isolating Greenberg's world. If Margot At The Wedding was foggy, Greenberg is misty - making the future of the character all the more uncertain and engaging. It may not be a film people describe as "beautiful", but that word now seems to be taken on in a classical, Malick-like sense. But in a way Greenberg is beautiful - because it's photography is so perfect for the material it serves.
Greta Gerwig is phenomenal as Florence. Always likable and always real, Gerwig infuses her with an energy and an unhappiness that manifests itself in everything from her body language to her vocal tones. It's an incredibly natural performance, sympathetic but never manipulative and her restrained sadness is made all the more powerful by the way Greenberg mentally (and unknowingly) abuses her. Rhys Ifans provides brilliant support but the real star here is, of course, Ben Stiller. Exploring territory that he hasn't felt for a long time, the comedian reigns in everything he's famous for and turns out a greying, nervous, angry performance; equally wanting and resenting love. He's selfish and obnoxious, but we get the sense that it's not his fault. Stiller installs a warmth to a cold character and ensures that even when we're annoyed at him, we are engaged by him. It's unlike anything else he's ever done and is, quite frankly, OSCAR worthy.
It won't be for everyone but Greenberg is another masterpiece from one of the smartest writer/directors working today. And honestly, we need him more than ever.