In Greenberg—the latest caustic character study from writer-director Noah Baumbach—mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig plays a rudderless 26-year-old whose overarching philosophy involves taking the path of least resistance. Gerwig toils as a nanny for a wealthy Southern California family, halfheartedly pursues a singing career, and stumbles into bed with men she barely knows because wordlessly cooperating is often easier than saying no. Into her inert, apathetic life comes Ben Stiller, her employer’s black-sheep brother and housesitter, an emotionally fragile recent graduate of a mental hospital engaged in a passive-aggressive, decades-long battle with the compromises and vulgarity of the modern world. Like Jeff Daniels in Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, Stiller is intent on rejecting a world he feels, not without reason, has rejected him.
Stiller’s bitter loner seems to have stopped developing emotionally when his future radiated the most promise. When he was 25, major labels wooed his band, but he got spooked and has wrestled with the consequences of his actions ever since. Stiller claims he’s devoting himself to doing nothing, but his lack of ambition comes across not as a Zen state of contentment, but as the self-serving rationale of someone who has given up. Gerwig thinks she can reach the sensitive soul buried under layers of bitterness, rage, and self-destruction, but Stiller doesn’t want to be saved: He can’t take a step forward without shimmying three or four steps back. His brittle exterior might just mask an even angrier, even more dysfunctional interior.
Stiller and Gerwig are a study in contrasts. In an audaciously prickly performance, Stiller plays a man who has closed himself off from his emotions, while Gerwig radiates a heartbreaking openness. These two damaged creatures orbit each other uneasily without ever connecting. A lesser film might steer Stiller’s ornery misanthrope onto the path of redemption, but Baumbach’s unblinking, brutally unsentimental script suggests that some people are unworthy of being loved, and incapable of returning love. Bittersweet and beautifully realized, harsh but humane, Greenberg is a self-consciously small film that nevertheless leaves an indelible mark.