Prickly, abrasive, fragmented -- that describes both the title character of Noah Baumbach's new film, Greenberg, and the film itself.
As played by Ben Stiller, in a performance filled with pain, anger, longing and self-loathing, Roger Greenberg is a man perpetually dissatisfied with everything about life and the world. He regularly writes letters of complaint -- to everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York to the Starbucks corporation -- and suffers daily from the unintentional foolishness of others. No one, it seems, either maintains or lives up to the standards Greenberg sets, including himself.
Not that things have been going particularly well for Greenberg. As the film starts, he's just out of a New York mental hospital, where he was recuperating from a nervous breakdown. Now he's house-sitting for his brother and sister-in-law in Los Angeles, while the brother takes his family on a vacation to Vietnam.
Once upon a time, Greenberg was a promising musician, part of a rockin' little outfit that had major-label interest, back in the late '80s and early '90s. When that fell apart, he drifted; these days, he makes his living as a carpenter, working out of a studio in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. While he's house-sitting, he's promised to build a doghouse for Mahler, his brother's amiable German shepherd.
Greenberg's savior -- and the suddenly ever-present fly in his ointment -- during his California sojourn is Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's assistant, who functions as an all-purpose au pair for Greenberg's brother's family. Florence becomes Greenberg's go-to gal for groceries (he gave up driving some years ago) and, before long, his sole source of company.
Quickly, Greenberg launches himself at her sexually, but is as repelled by her as he is attracted to her. He's drawn to her warmth and sexuality -- but when she starts talking to him about her day-to-day existence, he decides she's mundane or worse. So he's constantly pulling her close, then brutally pushing her away, unable to offer coherent explanations for what he does.
The same is true of his relationships with the few friends he still has, particularly Ivan (Rhys Ifans), his old bandmate. The two of them have some rocky history in the past -- which eventually comes out -- but Greenberg tries to pick up where they left off as if nothing happened. Ivan is amiable enough, a recovering addict suffering through a temporary separation from his wife and willing to give Greenberg another chance.
But as this roughly paced, sometimes jaggedly plotted film moves forward, we begin to see Greenberg for what he is: a miserable, tortured human being who can't seem to stop broadcasting his pain to others. He tries to simulate empathy but it doesn't come naturally to him, until Mahler the dog takes sick and he's forced to care for him with a regimen of medications.