There’s something painfully familiar about Ben Stiller’s misanthropic Roger Greenberg – the angry underachieving 40 something man scrabbling around in the trappings of wealth that isn’t his. In this case, his brother’s, for whom he housesits, post nervous breakdown, and re-evaluates the life that somehow went horribly wrong.
Director Noah Baumbach did exceptionally well with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale in creating a film about family dysfunction which caused laughter and tears in the same breath. Here, however, there is loneliness, pain and dysfunction all around, and though there are strands of hope lying scattered across the film, they’re easy to miss.
Greenberg returns to his former life in LA, a washed up musician turned carpenter who begins a horribly stilted relationship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant. They bond over the continuing illness of the family dog, but his self loathing, disillusionment and disbelief that he is in fact a middle aged man doing nothing with his life, create awkwardness to their fledgling relationship that make for unpleasant viewing.
Stiller, as established by The Royal Tenenbaums, can play angst and anger as well as the next comedian and his Greenberg is very convincing. But simply put, it’s too unpleasant to make this trip to the movies anything but an exercise in how not to live your life. Gerwig gives a wonderfully raw, naturalistic performance of a young girl foundering in life, with an innocence and teenage-style monotone that will either delight you or irritate you to death. Both performances are compelling – you certainly won’t be bored – but with Greenberg’s continual verbal abuse of Florence, his hopelessly nasty view of the people in his life, and his pathetic attempts to recapture his youth, you might wonder if perhaps you’d have been better off with a nice comedy instead.
That’s the thing about films like this. Though the performances always elicit critical praise – and praise must go here to both leads, and supporting man Rhys Ifans, in a genuinely relatable a role as Greenberg’s equally washed up best friend – the film itself is about as fun as drinking bleach and equally painful. Baumbach specialises in autobiographical films which are beautiful, tragic and often horribly uncomfortable, and any filmmaker who can squeeze that much emotion out of his audience deserves his due. It’s just that it’s not that much fun to actually watch.