Greenberg, about a bitter, middle-aged man-child trying to figure out his place in the world while house-sitting his brother's Los Angeles home, is the first Noah Baumbach movie I've sort of liked since his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming. Based on its titular hero's frequent splenetic outbursts — which are sprayed assault-rifle style at any unsuspecting friends, exes, or total strangers thoughtless enough to stand in his way — Baumbach's not giving up on his unshakable belief that misery is the river of the world. But he's finally letting more genteel types back into his movies who can challenge the naysayers now and then.
Ben Stiller, looking as serious and intent as a bearded Robin Williams, plays Greenberg as a pop-culture snob who nourishes his character's stupidity, delusion, selfishness, and lust the way a beggar nourishes his lice. His incessant low-level griping and riffing on behavioral minutiae is so inexcusably mean-spirited and stupid that listening to his rants against restaurant customers and large corporations starts to feel like spending time with a jackass who defends every uncouth remark by saying, "Hey, at least I'm being honest."
For Greenberg, every human interaction is a potential disaster, whether it's an impromptu reunion with one of his former band mates (the always-reliable Mark Duplass) or a botched attempt at reconciliation with his disinterested former girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Baumbach specializes in such uncomfortable interpersonal encounters, whether they are verbal, sexual, or, in the climactic party scene with Greenberg and his college-age niece's friends, generational. (And what is his envious judgment of these twentysomething party monsters? "There's a confidence in you that's horrifying.") The age disparity between Greenberg and his hate objects is important: Stiller's advancing age and diminutive stature are often disguised in his films, but here his smallness and his gray hair are stressed to imbue his 40-year-old character with a perfume of petulance and pettiness so strong it almost doubles his size in any given space.
The episodic plot congeals around Greenberg's passive-aggressive dalliances with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's 25-year-old personal assistant. Gerwig brings a wonderfully complementary energy to her scenes with Stiller; she's a hurt bag, all right, but her diffidence and confusion feel like optimism when contrasted with her angry li'l love interest. Even when she's absorbing abuse, Gerwig warms and complicates every scene she's in.
Harris Savides' cinematography, which depicts a Southern California atmosphere that's not so much smoggy as pollinated, is also relatively cheery and consistent with the film's tentative embrace of growth instead of pollution. And there's some unexpected human comedy in the film as well. In one sequence at a restaurant, Greenberg's overpowering crankiness actually nets a few laughs ("It's weird aging, right? It's like, what the fuck is going on?"), and his lost, depressed friend's (Rhys Ifans) casual remark that the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck shows that Lohan's "got charm" is a more vital example of peanut-gallery culture parsing than Greenberg's faux-ronic embrace of the song "It Never Rains in Southern California" or the movie as a whole.