Yes, the scene where one of the characters in Greenberg gets an abortion is unhysterical. And, yeah, the friendship between the men played by Ben Stiller and Rhys Ifans is a relatable one. And, sure, ok, the apartment Greta Gerwig’s Florence lives in looks like the apartment she would live in and not a location chosen for its prettiness: a dull, ordinary studio with a kitchenette. But although maturity, patience, even-handedness and a sense of realism are all admirable qualities, they’re neither a requirement for great filmmaking nor are they always present in great films. What I’m saying is this: it’s a little silly to praise a 40-year-old for directing like a grown-up.
But you know what? It’s also a little silly to demean a film or its director for not being great. It’s not as substantial as it believes itself to be, but Greenberg is a good movie, and contrary to a lot of critical practice, good does not equal mediocre. Noah Baumbach is a very able director and a nimble screenwriter. He’s got a good eye and a fine ear for performances, and, with the exception of a really terrible scene where Stiller finds himself at a party full of kids half his age, he’s pretty smart and can take a step back to think about what he's filming. Baumbach makes attractive films, not beautiful ones, rough in a comfortable way, and, like a well put-together magazine, they provide good entertainment for about two hours.
Ben Stiller plays the part of Roger Greenberg with an uncharacteristic slouch, which makes him look taller than he probably is and, combined with the shaggy way he wears his graying hair, a lot like Jesse Eisenberg's Walt from The Squid and the Whale, 25 years older. And he certainly plays; he's got a comedian's knack for performance instead of an actor's instinct for inhabitation. What's always strange about Stiller is that, even when he's playing a character a lot like himself, or when he delivers a speech at an awards show, he seems to be doing the world's best Ben Stiller impression. Greta Gerwig, on the other hand, looks like she has accidentally wandered into one of Harris Savides' carefully composed frames. Like a passerby a news crew points the telephoto lens at, unsuspectingly eating her lunch, unaware that her face is at the center of a close-up. This isn't a weakness; it's her greatest asset. Whereas Stiller always carries himself like there's a camera to entertain (because there is), she never seems to be aware that she's being filmed.
Gerwig plays Florence Marr, the musically-named personal assistant of the wealthy Greenberg family. She picks up their groceries and ferries their dog around in an aging Mercedes station wagon. As the Greenbergs leave for vacation in Vietnam, Florence is informed that the husband's brother, Roger, will be staying at their Los Angeles house for a few weeks. A former Californian, now a fulltime New Yorker, Roger, of course, has a backstory: he once had a band and that band once almost got a record deal, except Roger blew it. Rumors circulate around him, mostly about his mental state. He's got a lot of old friends in the city, most of whom aren't really that interested in putting up with his shit. Florence entertains the fantasy that Roger's a "damaged" man in need of healing, but he's really just an ordinary asshole. He's got no illness except himself.
All of this sounds like a pretty good set-up, and it is. But the funny thing about Noah Baumbach’s films and their obviously personal, maybe autobiographical, scenarios (this one co-written by his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also pops up in a small role) is that I often get the feeling that it should be possible to do more with the same material. For every scene where Greenberg shows a disarming frankness (and those are its best moments: the half-confrontations between Stiller and Gerwig, the abrupt sex scenes) or an emotional precision (such as the scenes between Stiller and Leigh and the brief scene where Stiller goes swimming), there’s a scene of equal importance that’s lazily conceived (most of these involve “kids these days”–at 40, Baumbach may be the world’s youngest fogey). But Baumbach will be Baumbach; he can’t be faulted for not being James Gray or Mia Hansen-Løve. When he can muster the will to surprise, he surprises well. On his off days, though, he can be a total letdown.