Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a lonely fortysomething from New York who has just flown out to Los Angeles to housesit for his rich brother, off with his family on a working vacation in Vietnam. Roger arrives with some serious baggage: back home he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an institution for a while. That doesn't seem to matter much to Florence (mumblecore "It" girl Greta Gerwig), the family's personal assistant, who takes an inexplicable shine to the troubled Roger, and so a tenuous relationship ensues, doomed only by Roger's awful behavior.
Noah Baumbach seems to have found his niche in delivering chilly dramas about dysfunctional and profoundly unlikable characters (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) and Greenberg is more of the same. The performances are fine - anyone expecting a typical or even a funny Ben Stiller comedy will not get what they came for, but as I've avoided most of those comedies and still remember the actor from his straight roles in Reality Bites and Zero Effect, I have no problem accepting him in a dramatic role - and Baumbach does a good job at capturing the Los Angeles of 2009.
Gerwig's character is the latest so-called "manic pixie dream girl" - in the mold of Natalie Portman in Garden State - that quirky, cute, available young woman who falls for the protagonist no matter how big of a loser he is. And there is no question that Stiller's Greenberg is one big loser. But Baumbach wrote the story with his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who also co-produced and co-stars in the film), and she knows something about strong female characters, so some time is spent revealing the sad, empty life behind the fun hipster chick. Florence has a drab apartment, a weak personality, and a gloomy secret of her own. If she finds something to love about a man fifteen years her elder who has little to offer, it's not that hard to swallow, as she's not much of a catch herself. As for Stiller, it's not hard to imagine that this angry, neurotic, self-absorbed character may be closer to the real Ben Stiller than most of his other roles. I should also mention terrific supporting work from Rhys Ifans, playing Roger Greenberg's old friend and former bandmate.
There are lots of nice character details in Greenberg, but I can't say that it's an enjoyable or satisfying film. As a man around Greenberg's age, dealing with the same issues of arrested development when everybody else my age seems to be getting rich, buying houses, and having children, I should identify with him at least to a degree. But I've never been able to connect with Baumbach's caustic characters in any of his movies. Maybe that just means I'm healthy, or maybe Baumbach's characters are not true to life.