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Greenberg

Directed by Noah Baumbach. US. 2010. R. 107 minutes.
Sun., May 16, 2010 thru Thu., May 20, 2010
Sunday
May 16, 2010
4:45 pm
Monday
May 17, 2010
6:30 pm
Tuesday
May 18, 2010
7:30 pm
Sunday
May 16, 2010
7:00 pm
Wednesday
May 19, 2010
7:30 pm
Thursday
May 20, 2010
7:30 pm
Wednesday
May 19, 2010
2:00 pm

“One of the most touching lines in Noah Baumbach’s remarkable “Greenberg” is an announcement by the wistful young heroine, Florence Marr: “I’ve gotta stop doing things just because they feel good.”

“Good? There’s no evidence that Florence—a portrait of heartbreaking delicacy by Greta Gerwig—feels truly good about anything. She feels bad about herself, and properly anxious about an emerging love affair with Roger Greenberg, a middle-aging misanthrope played with intransigent brilliance by Ben Stiller. Everything’s relative, of course. Florence is joyous compared to Roger, a former musician whose anger at the world is matched only by his narcissism. Yet the wonder of the film is how good it makes us feel. “Greenberg” scintillates with intelligence, razor’s-edge humor and austere empathy for its struggling lovers.

This is a new departure for Mr. Baumbach, even though he might seem to be working the same territory of neurotic dysfunction and mutual need that he explored, sometimes relentlessly, in “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding.” What’s new is the combination of warmth and reserve. The film is extremely entertaining—a real romance, however tortured it may be—yet tough-minded and confidently self-contained.

The setting is Los Angeles, whose physical and spiritual sprawl has been rendered with eerie accuracy. Fittingly, the first extended sequence takes place in a car, with Florence behind the wheel and the camera fixed on her pretty face. (Harris Savides did the fine cinematography.) “You gonna let me in?” she asks nervously. She’s alone, running errands, so the question is clearly directed at another driver in another lane. But it’s also the anthem of her needy psyche and her lonely life. She works as a personal assistant to Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messina), who lives with his wife and kids in the Hollywood Hills. When the family goes off on vacation to Vietnam, Florence stays behind to take care of their German shepherd, Mahler, and to provide whatever support may be needed for Phillip’s brother, Roger, newly arrived from New York via a mental institution that was treating him for depression.

Of the ménage à trois that forms in the family’s absence, Mahler proves to be the most stable member, and even he comes down with an autoimmune disease that lands him at the vet’s. “Greenberg” is a love story, yes, but it’s also a tale of two people adrift in separate currents, constantly sinking and bobbing to the surface like synchro swimmers out of sync. Florence’s judgment is dreadful when it comes to men in general, and potentially disastrous when it comes to this one. She can’t understand why Roger lets her into his life, then brutally ejects her, not just once but repeatedly. “You like me a lot more than you think you do,” she tells him after one rebuff. Although she’s right, Florence is a slow learner who takes a long time to recall a cautionary phrase—”hurt people hurt people”—that she picked up along her painful way.

Ms. Gerwig’s performance is extraordinary—notably nuanced, commandingly tender. But the movie’s title is “Greenberg,” not “Marr,” and Mr. Stiller commands a kind of awe in his refusal to clothe the naked hostility of a character who suffers from the autoimmune disease of self-loathing. (“Life is wasted on people,” the hero says at one point.) An ardent arsonist, he has burned most of the bridges that once connected him to friends and a flourishing career. Much of the time Roger looks either haunted or absent, not a black hole but a gray one.

Rhys Ifans plays Ivan, a former band mate whom Roger seeks out after arriving in L.A. Ivan comes on quietly, a sweet-spirited seeker who has found his way after losing it, but he finally gets his own turn at eloquent anger and Mr. Ifans rises powerfully to the occasion. Mr. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh (she collaborated with him on the story and served as producer) is attractive and understated as Beth, Roger’s old flame.

A movie with an off-putting hero represents a huge risk. Messrs. Baumbach and Stiller made a bet that we would stay with Roger, and the film, until things took a turn for the better. The bet pays off beautifully—not because the hero is revealed to be nice, but because he reveals himself to be human in a series of startling rages and astonishing monologues that lead to a pleasing climax (and an inspired shot of a giant red balloon-man, arms and legs flapping wildly.) Roger delivers one monologue to Florence’s phone mail, and another to a bunch of heedless twenty-something kids at a party. It’s a poignant expression of mortality by a man who’s finally growing into his life.” (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal)

Access more reviews at metacritic.com.