They meet cute over Albert Hammond’s easy-listening staple “It Never Rains in Southern California.” She’s just gotten out of a relationship, or so she says, perhaps hoping to seem more vulnerable. He’s just gotten out of a mental hospital, or so she’s heard secondhand. She doesn’t know the song—she’s too young. “You have to get past the kitsch,” he assures. An awkward silence follows.
Noah Baumbach’s fifth feature (or sixth, depending on whether you count 1997’s pseudonymous Highball) and his first to take place in Los Angeles, the depressive comedy Greenberg is about the two months in which this woman who wants so very much to be let in crosses paths with a man who is an expert at shutting people out. Her name is Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer-songwriter in her mid-twenties who makes ends meet by working as a personal assistant. His name is Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a carpenter by trade and the brother of Florence’s boss, in town to housesit for his vacationing sibling and to recover from his breakdown (the precise details of which remain unspecified). “I don’t really recognize New York anymore,” he says at one point, although like many a Baumbach protagonist before him, Greenberg’s real place of discomfort is right there inside his own skin.
Change of address notwithstanding, the psychological geography of Greenberg is terrain Baumbach has been mapping in increasingly sharp relief since his 1995 debut feature, Kicking and Screaming—an awkward middle distance between here and there, whether those opposing forces are postgraduate anomie and adult responsibility, the rival affections (or lack thereof) of two divorcing parents, or the cultural bipolarities of New York and Los Angeles. At first, the movie gets high-comic mileage out of Greenberg as a stranger in a strange land—a non-swimmer in the land of swimming pools, a pedestrian in the city of the freeway. (Attending one spot-on Hollywood Hills birthday party, he takes a gander at the shabby-chic denizens and their costumed children and holds forth with the Alvy Singer–worthy conclusion, “All the men out here dress like children and the children dress like superheroes.”)
But as it turns out, Greenberg is a native Angeleno himself, returning to a life he left on hold two decades earlier. Back then, he was one-third of a punk/New Wave outfit that lost its shot at a record deal because of his reticence, and among the film’s most acutely perceptive scenes are those of Greenberg reestablishing contact with his ex-bandmates (Mark Duplass and the excellent Rhys Ifans). The old friends try, like the estranged sisters of Baumbach’s previous Margot at the Wedding, to avoid picking at old wounds—only to inevitably move in for the kill.
“Hurt people hurt people” goes the movie’s decidedly Left Coast healing mantra—a sentiment, like Albert Hammond’s, at once kitschy and profound. Certainly, Greenberg seems unable to help himself, sabotaging Florence’s every effort to get closer to him, at one point berating her for not being a divorced thirtysomething with kids and low expectations. In perhaps the film’s most Baumbach-ian moment, he excuses himself from the dinner table to phone an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he thinks he might have another shot with now that her marriage is on the verge of imploding. Not that any of this stops Florence from falling for (and into bed with) him. Hurt people sometimes do that too.
Of course, Baumbach has never shown much interest in characters who play well with others or glide smoothly through the gears of mainstream society. His sharpest observations are reserved for preternaturally intelligent, hyper-self-conscious outsiders whose existential crises are the failure of the world—and, to some extent, themselves—to live up to their own high expectations. And for all of Greenberg’s coarseness, Stiller has, I think, never been quite this compelling on screen, this restrained, this consumed by something other than his need to mug for the audience—in a word, this human. Moving through the film, he seems weighed down by something mammoth, and not just the groceries Greenberg shleps uphill like a latter-day Sisyphus. Similarly, freed from her role as resident lust object in the films of mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, Gerwig gives Florence the luminous tenderness of so many aspirant somebodies toiling in the lower reaches of the Hollywood dream factory.
Leigh is not merely a supporting player, but Baumbach’s creative partner in the film, having co-authored the story and, as a native Angeleno herself, doubtless filled in much of the local color. From its opening shot—a slowly zooming pan of a diffuse Los Angeles vista—Greenberg seems imbued with the air of those movies like The Long Goodbye, Shampoo, and Leigh’s own co-directed The Anniversary Party that managed to capture, in a few shorthand gestures, the literal and figurative haze that can seem to envelop the city and everyone in it. That peculiar atmosphere pervades a climactic, coke-and-prescription-drug-fueled house party that Baumbach stages as a pressure cooker in which all of Greenberg’s fears—failure, aging, irrelevance—simmer to a boil. Not surprisingly, he wakes up the next morning ready for flight. And yet, where nearly all of Baumbach’s films have ended with their protagonists on the run or at least out of breath, Greenberg culminates in an unexpected moment of clarity, like the skies above the Southland on those rare days after it rains.