Ben Stiller, in 'Greenberg'

Dir. Noah Baumbach
(2010, R, 107 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a miserable fellow. As the film begins, his more successful brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), is preparing his family for a temporary move to Vietnam. His personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig, lovely and warm) will remain to care for the house, the dog, and house-sitter Roger — though which needs the most tending would be a matter of some dispute.

Roger was admitted to a mental hospital after suffering what Phillip’s wife describes as a “nervous breakdown,” and has recently been released. He’s 40-ish, withdrawn, working as a carpenter, though years ago he and two of his friends were in a band on the cusp of a record deal. Now he mostly spends his time writing letters of complaint. “He seems vulnerable,” says Florence, who is drawn to him for reasons she doesn’t seem to understand.

Greenberg, like writer-director Noah Baumbach’s previous films Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale, is full of wry, uncomfortable scenes and awkward pauses. Baumbach’s interest is in what’s between the lines, in the subtext underlying the silences. Roger attends a children’s party filled with old friends and neighbors who have started careers, bought houses, raised families; the strained pleasantness of their small talk expresses alienation — who is this strange man they once knew?

Rhys Ifans is terrific as Roger’s best friend Ivan, quietly but perceptibly conveying strong feelings under the surface. Ivan, way back when a member of Roger’s band, still harbors resentment; their scenes play like two people going through the motions of friendship, but separated by an unnamed gulf, leading to a great, cathartic scene that comes on suddenly but feels inevitable.

Roger is not a likable man: bitter, defensive, obsessive, needy. But Stiller fills in subtle layers of insecurity. When he’s cruel to Florence, it’s his terror that comes through. When he snickers disdainfully, we sense his anxiety. He’s an exposed wire, throwing up sparks at unsuspecting victims, sometimes himself. It has made him extremely lonely. “Hurt people hurt people,” Greta tells him. So he does.