Like The Graduate for a more highly dysfunctional and navel-gazing age, Greenberg centers on a Gen-Xer who has been released from a mental hospital and finds himself adrift in Los Angeles.
The narrative of Noah Baumbach's film (co-written with his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) drifts — in a distinctly Robert Altman chord — alongside Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a failed musician-turned-carpenter from Manhattan who holes up in his well-to-do hipster brother Phillip's (Chris Messina) plush Hollywood Hills mansion post-release and tentatively surveys where his life choices have landed him. He reaches out to an old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) who is breaking up with his wife of 10 years and whose musical career Roger sabotaged decades ago. And he reaches out to his brother Phillip's assistant Florence (queen of Gen-Y mumblecore cinema Greta Gerwig). Like Roger, she is letting life just bounce her along like a buoy on the water. Florence has been left with instructions, while Phillip and his family are vacationing in Vietnam, to look after Roger and get him what he needs.
It's a tough order, since even Roger seems unsure of what he needs. When they come together under the guise of a romance, Roger is flummoxed: A relationship is probably more structure than he can handle, and he takes out all his anxiety on poor Florence. He seems content to skulk around Phillip's house, reinforcing his own impotence by writing angry letters to Mayor Bloomberg or American Airlines about traffic noise and malfunctioning reclining-seat buttons.
Stiller has always been a hangdog type, but in Greenberg he has the defeated, helpless look of someone who has had the wind knocked out of him. A good example of this occurs when Roger and Ivan attend a party thrown by friends. At first Roger wants to know, "Is it a kid's party?" But the truth is, it's just a party, but all of his friends now have kids. Most are married, or going through their first divorce. They have real jobs, although Roger is quick to observe, "All the men are dressed like children." In that one phrase, Roger hones in on the protracted adolescence that defines all of his peers, even the functional ones.
As many have already observed, Stiller is something of a generational poster child for feckless, anxious boy-men. He's mostly used that quality to comic effect as the sensitive, bumbling male nurse surrounded by alpha males in Meet the Fockers and the slacker dad in the Night at the Museum franchise. Stiller is often pitiable—but with a core of selfishness. Stiller plays Roger as something of a jerk, someone who berates and insults the gentle, lovelorn Florence and can't stop picking at Ivan's wife. He's restless in the world and in his own skin, an insecurity emphasized in his chronic reapplication of Chapstick. He's also, surprisingly lovable, schlepping around L.A. (he can't drive) carrying groceries and wearing a sad little fleece vest. He's like an alien visitor, a bit shocked by the sensations and customs of his host planet.
Greenberg has a kind of formless, ebb-and-flow rhythm that feels more like the random, low-key quality of living than the third-act oriented storylines of most films. There are, instead of big realizations, little epiphanic blips, the kind of sudden insights or observations that give momentary insight without illuminating the bigger picture. The characters are relentlessly navel-gazing. And like people used to lots and lots of therapy, they consider any conversational gambit fair game, no matter how rude or insensitive. But you also realize they self-critique to keep someone else from getting to it first.
It's impossible to ignore the Peter Pan, never-grow-up generational dimensions to Greenberg. Baumbach's film bears a resemblance to his other portraits of dysfunctional moderns in Margot at the Wedding, but also to the wealthy but unhappy Hollywood residents of Jennifer Jason Leigh's co-written The Anniversary Party. For a certain age-group, Greenberg will be as definitive as The Graduate was for boomers. But where The Graduate is about what to do with your life on the cusp of adulthood, Greenberg picks up that idea 10, 20 years later. It is a painful, funny, truthful read on our own times and a peculiar and distressing moment that often happens at 30 or 40 or 50, when, as Ivan puts it, you have to finally "embrace the life you never planned on."