In the midst of a depression or any emotional mean season, the bitterest pill is sometimes not the suffering itself, but the realization that what you're feeling is actually quite ordinary. You might like to think that you're hurting as few humans have before, that your angst is the result of seeing stupidity or ugliness in the world to which others are blithely unware. But really, it pains you to realize, you're just swimming upstream in the same chemical tide that might be battering lots of people around you at any given time.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is plagued by no such self-awareness. He writes angry letters to Starbucks, American Airlines, even Mayor Bloomberg in New York City as if he's the first person who ever thought of doing so, as if the dark or just annoying forces of the universe have been marshalled against him specifically. He seems a slightly less sane successor to the bitter, deluded father played by Jeff Daniels in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale.
Apparently not long-removed from a mental hospital, Greenberg has come west from the offending NYC to Los Angeles, where he is to house sit for his well-to-do brother, off to Vietnam with most of his family. It's here that his ornery trajectory and that of Florence (Greta Gerwig) intersect.
Greta is the all-purpose assistant to Roger's brother and family, beloved of parents, children and pet alike. She's essentially the anti-Greenberg: young, attentive and all-too-ready to bestow her affection, even where it will find little reciprocation. As Greta negotiates her way through Los Angeles traffic in the first moments of the film and says "Are you gonna let me in," to car she's eyeing in the rear view mirror, it might as well be a question she's asking of the world in general. It's a line writ large by Baumbauch but said small (and all the more powerfully) by Gerwig.
The housesitting stint marks a return to L.A. for Greenberg, where he seemed on the verge of making it big with his band some 15 years previous. But much to the chagrin of his bandmates, Greenberg turned down a recording contract, which essentially scuttled the group. Rys Ifans plays Ivan, one the former bandmates, whose good nature has obviously been sorely tested by his relationship with Greenberg over the years, even while he was dealing with his own issues, substance abuse and otherwise. Ifans shaggy appeal has rarely been put to better or more melancholy use.
There came a point in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbauch's previous film, at which the director seemed like a child of the 70's, playing one of those football games that have players magnetized to a metal playing field and moved around by vibration. Turn the vibration high enough - and I speak from experience - and the players would lose all semblance of a football game and just crash wildly into each other.
We had Jack Black being chased by the father of an underage girl with whom he had fooled around and then caterwauling tortuously at his guilt (he might as well have been wailing at the limitations of his range) If that wasn't enough, Margot and her sister Pauline (Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh), with children in tow, are sent off on an odyssey which culminates in their wandering lost through the woods and Pauline (Baumbach's wife, no less) shitting herself. With that, the director lost me, much as he seemed to be enjoying the mayhem to which he was subjecting his charaters.
But in this story that he and Jason Leigh have come up with and Baumbach is credited with writing, there is a plan at work, a method to the madness, even if Greenberg remains clueless to it. We seem him essentially wandering the frontiers of his sanity. This happens on the forbidding terrain of a couple of parties, both as he tries to communicate with younger people and then as he skulks the periphery of those gatherings alone. In both scenes, the conflicting vernaculars and hostility lurking just below the surface of the exchanges are sharply rendered.
We also see him struggling to be someone competent and trustworthy, out in the elements, trying to keep his peevish brother's pool from overflowing in a rainstorm. He walks resolutely around his Los Angeles environs in a city that generally scorns pedestrianism. On a couple of occasions, he finds himself regarding one of those angry-looking, red, flapping, tubular, inflated creatures that businesses like to place out front to draw customers at grand opening or sale times. None of these scenes are played for laughs. There's a compassion here that was missing in Margot at the Wedding. One is made keenly aware of a man that's trying to keep it together in a world that seems full of adversity and ill omens. During many of these solitary moments we hear the impressively varied score by James Murphy of the LCD Soundsystem take a turn for the discordant, kind of like the sound of jangling nerves.
I'm not sure that either Greta Gerwig or her Florence are well served by all of this. Both Baumbach and his main character seem understandably taken with her (them), but Florence is utilized as little more than a lifeline. For the director, who begins the film in intimate and persistent profile on Gerwig, her ample humanity helps keeps the story afloat above its choppy waters. To Greenberg, Florence is a chance at redemption, the mid-life attempt at existential do-over to which so many men are prone. Florence should probably run for her life; Gerwig will hopefully be given more to do in the future.
Greenberg is another in a series Baumbach's men who seem intent on not going gentle into that good night of maturity. Stiller, alas, has another of those Focker movies on the way. But among their respective bodies of work, this one should endure.