In the most recent phase of his career, writer-director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself by telling stories about unlikable people. Narcissists and man-children, ice queens and underminers, all people you might never choose to spend the length of a movie with but people you know all the same. And while he may not have written Roger Greenberg as his most unlikable character yet, as played by Ben Stiller that's exactly what he becomes. Casting a movie star to play an irritating schlub was his first mistake, but as he builds Greenberg around Stiller's performance, Baumbach comes to seem nearly as self-absorbed and naive as the character himself.
Greenberg is recently out of a mental institution after an unnamed breakdown, and while his brother and his family vacation in Vietnam (yes, they're that type of L.A. people), Greenberg uses the spacious house as his own retreat, sleeping in the college-age daughter's room, stressing out whenever the neighbors use the pool, and panicking even at the responsibility of caring for the dog. Lucky for him there's Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's 25-year-old assistant who knows every detail of her boss's life, but is aimless and adrift in her own.
Greenberg and Florence start a tentative, awkward, and almost immediately destructive relationship, while Greenberg spats occasionally with his former bandmate (Rhys Ifans) and, er, that's pretty much all that happens. Played elegantly by Gerwig, Florence is an immediately recognizable character, a capable and smart college grad without a clue of what to do next, and Greenberg is the kind of guy you'd warn her away from instantly if you knew her in real life. Not only is he inconsistent, dragging her in one minute and pushing her away the next, but he insults her to his friends-- "She's the kind of girl you'd have a crush on at work, but outside the office you'd wonder if she was as cute as you thought she was"-- and belittles her to her face. As the screenwriter Baumbach is nearly as cruel; Florence has no reliable friends or family, and aside from a decent singing voice, is given no ambition, no talent, no role other than a sounding board for Greenberg's neuroses.
Baumbach's goal, as usual, is a kind of bourgeois realism, and he acquits himself well with the details of a world he clearly knows-- Florence's dingy apartment compared to the Greenbergs' comfortable home, a party overtaken by children and later, one with self-absorbed college kids. But while he's not exactly Nancy Meyers, celebrating a rich lifestyle with no ability to criticize it, he seems to have run out of ways to make these indulgent, overly neurotic characters worth paying attention to. Even Jennifer Jason Leigh and the usually wonderful Mark Duplass, playing two of Greenberg's old friends, are trapped in this morass of nice clothes and good hair that have nothing to say other than "Hey, rich people have problems too!"
The toxic heart of it all, though, is Greenberg, and yet another Stiller performance as a neurotic near-douchebag unable to relate to anyone around him. In his more mainstream comedies-- Meet the Parents, Tropic Thunder-- that character is redeemed after forcing to own up to his problems. In Baumbach's world, though, he's just another fucked-up human like the rest of us. There really are plenty of Greenbergs in the world-- but Greenberg the movie is not a convincing reason to spend this much time with him.