Running Length: 107 minutes
Cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Ben Stiller drops his standard ‘look-at-me’ acting style to play the titular character, Roger Greenberg. He is a carpenter from New York who, after a brief stay in a mental hospital, comes to Los Angeles to look after his brother’s house while the family is on vacation. Florence, the family’s assistant is a young woman adrift in the world. At one point she mentions that she has been out of college longer than she was in.
Content to ‘just do nothing for a while’, Greenberg mooches around his brother’s house, spying on the neighbours with pool privileges and catching up with the old friends he left behind. Back in the day, Greenberg was in a band and they had a chance at a contract with a label, but Greenberg shot it down over perceived creative differences. The band ended and none of them have managed to do anything significant with their lives since. Ivan is at least willing to try and re-connect with Greenberg, unlike the other bandmate who is openly hostile.
The film follows Greenberg as he begins and ends a relationship with Florence several times over. He is a destructive presence whose depressive nature and acerbic tongue constantly get him in trouble. That Florence, a seemingly nice girl with a good head on her shoulders, should even bother with him is a miracle. Throughout the film one keeps wanting to just slap her and tell her to go to a bar and pick up some nice guy her own age.
And there lies the biggest flaw in this film: the central character is unlikable. And not just unlikable, he goes through no transformation, learns nothing from his journey. There is no redeeming moment, no flash of understanding of him where he can become endearing or vulnerable.
Another flaw is to open the film with Florence, setting her up as the central character then is all but abandoned in the film’s second half. It is possible to make a film about hideous characters engaging, but this is not one of those films. If anything, this film makes the characters in Baumbach’s previous one, Margot at the Wedding, almost bearable.
It is a shame that Baumbach, so astute, funny and touching with The Squid and the Whale should be wasting his time and talent writing unfunny, unsympathetic stories like these.