‘Greenberg’: L.A. Story, By Kurt Loder

Ben Stiller scores in a muddled new movie.

Roger Greenberg has returned to Los Angeles, to the delight of nobody. Years ago, Roger (Ben Stiller) lived in L.A. He was a musician, had a band, nearly had a record deal but blew it. Then he moved to New York, became a carpenter, had a mental breakdown, did some time in the bin. Now, here he is, 40 years old and back again, with all that baggage still in hand. He has come to spend six weeks in soothing tranquility house-sitting for his brother, who’s leaving on an extended vacation. Roger doesn’t drive, and whiskey is among the many meds he’s on, but his brother’s personal assistant, Florence Marr, will be on call to help out. What could go wrong?

Plenty, what else? In “Greenberg,” director Noah Baumbach makes a sizeable demand of his audience. The risk in centering a story on a character whose distinguishing trait is relentless hostility is that people like this are insufferable in real life and, without any promise of leavening likability, very difficult to care about as fictional constructs. Stiller gives a performance of remarkable control — there’s no mugging or comedic overreach — and he brings Roger to life as a recognizable human being. Unfortunately, the human being we recognize is someone we would flee if we ever actually encountered him. The movie is set up as a quirky romance between two lost souls, but in the end it seems more like a stalemate than a love match.

There are some wonderful scenes, though, most of them involving Greta Gerwig as the lovably scattered Florence and Rhys Ifans as Roger’s onetime bandmate, Ivan — the person who suffered most when Roger turned down that recording contract back in the day (because he felt it wasn’t a big-enough offer). Florence is 25 and adrift in her life; she semi-aspires to be a singer, but she’s terrible at it, and her love life consists of impromptu sex with any guy who won’t run away. (“I’m wearing kind of an ugly bra,” she warns, when Roger inevitably takes his shot.) She’s a schlumpy, disheveled mess, and Gerwig — the mumblecore queen, here radiating a unique star quality — makes her enormously endearing.

Ifans, for his part, radically mutes his vivid comic presence to play a character who’s drowning in defeat. Ivan, who’s English, was stranded in L.A. after the old band’s collapse and struggled to make a new career for himself in computers. He’s been fairly successful, but now his marriage has hit the rocks, and he’s living alone in a ratty motel. More than the showbiz fame that once seemed within his grasp, he now longs only for reconciliation with his wife, in order to, as he puts it, “finally embrace the life you never planned.”

Although Roger is a complete misanthrope (“Life is wasted on people”), some of his many peculiarities are inventively amusing. His attempt to throw a house party is predictably disastrous, in part because the finger foods he chooses to serve are Creamsicles and guacamole. And we know his attendance at another party — this one filled with 20-something drug enthusiasts — is doomed to go downhill when he inquires, “Is it okay to mix coke and Zoloft?” There’s also a brief prospect of emotional growth when Roger has lunch with his old girlfriend, Beth (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the film’s story with Baumbach, her husband). Roger remembers everything about their relationship — or everything he ever felt about it, anyway — with passionate clarity. For Beth, though, it’s buried deep in the past, and, as she gently informs him, never would have amounted to much anyway.

Unfortunately, emotional growth isn’t something of which Roger appears to be capable. His problems are clearly mental — they’re not antisocial habits that can be outgrown — and even on heavy medication, he’s still a mess. We understand why he’d be attracted to the adorable Florence — who wouldn’t be? But even given her modest romantic requirements (“You don’t feel that pressure to be successful,” she tells Roger admiringly), we can’t fathom why she puts up with his constant, heartless verbal abuse, or what prospects she can possibly see in him. The movie’s final scene is carefully constructed to end the story in a glow of possibility, to suggest that Florence’s devotion might overcome all obstacles and someday pay off. But since the biggest obstacle in this awkward romance is Roger himself, all we can really see is a dispirited woman in the grip of a delusion.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Chloe,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Greenberg.”

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