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Reality Bitten

Greenberg (2010)

Wilson Webb/Focus Features

"Greenberg" is Ben Stiller's "Punch-Drunk Love." That romantic comedy from 2001 starred Adam Sandler as an awkward, unhappy man who, while embarking on a bizarre project, falls in love with a blonde. This time, Mr. Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a carpenter with undefined mental-health problems, who returns to Los Angeles to house-sit while his brother's family is on an extended vacation. This goes great until some people show up unannounced in the pool. Rather than talk to them, Roger rattles around anxiously, peers out from behind some curtains and calls Florence (Greta Gerwig), the family's assistant.

A cute blonde in her mid-20s, Florence is rattling around herself. She's just got out of a long relationship and wants to be a singer, but doesn't know how to focus her interest into a musical career. Roger had a musical career once, in a band with Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and Beller (Mark Duplass), but it ended badly and he hasn't seen his old friends in years. Soon he discovers you can't go home again.

Is Los Angeles really like this? The movie is all elbows, knees and uncomfortable edges, and no one ever relaxes. Noah Baumbach directed and wrote the script from a story he co-wrote with Jennifer Jason Leigh, which knows about people who have to learn things the hard way. This is a sunny, prosperous movie, full of bright light and swimming pools, casual hospitality and people going out to dinner; but its problems are not external villains. It's the internal demons which menace.

Roger takes the lead in finding things to complain about, including the cinematically analogue touch of having him hand-write whining letters to various corporations. This unease permeates his life: He arrives at a party at an ex-girlfriend's (Ms. Leigh herself, and it's a total delight to see her onscreen) home to complain he didn't know children would be there. He is stuck, and very good at justifying his behavior past and present, but the movie's weaknesses are that the stakes are low and the theme of alienation in Los Angeles hasn't been fresh since "Rebel Without a Cause." In "Punch-Drunk Love," at least Mr. Sandler was buying pudding cups to get millions of frequent-flier miles. In this movie, the main character only wants to do nothing. Where's the hook? What has he got to lose?

Mr. Stiller is very good, and this is a big change of pace from the comedy grotesques he specializes in. But in many ways, he is reprising his character from 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums." It's a shame that, similar to his on-screen character, something's holding him back from developing further. "Greenberg's" core weakness at least — and for once — does not extend to the female characters. For this all credit belongs to Ms. Gerwig, who made her name in mumblecore films such as "Nights and Weekends." When the family dog gets sick and needs to visit the vet, Florence is happy to help since — of course — Roger doesn't drive anymore. Well, she's not really happy — not really, but she feels obligated and responsible. Then Roger asks her out for a drink, and the date goes even worse than the mortifying encounter between Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman in the similarly themed "Shopgirl." Ms. Gerwig's fearlessness also enables her to handle expertly a subplot so daring that it's been about 10 years since it has appeared, however obliquely, in a Hollywood film. If Ms. Gerwig is as smart as Emily Watson, she could parlay her equally undeniable authenticity and frankness into as interesting a career.


Opens on March 26 in New York and on June 11 in Britain.

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Mr. Baumbach, based on a story by Mr. Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Tim Streeto; music by James Murphy; production designer, Ford Wheeler; costumes by Mark Bridges; produced by Ms. Leigh and Scott Rudin; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15v by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Ben Stiller (Roger Greenberg), Greta Gerwig (Florence Marr), Rhys Ifans (Ivan Schrank), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Beth), Brie Larson (Sara), Juno Temple (Muriel) and Chris Messina (Phillip Greenberg).


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