Noah Baumbach made a bit of a splash with his excellent 2005 feature The Squid and the Whale, which was steeped in his own family history, and darkly funny, but never shying away from pain or truth. Everything seemed to click on this movie. Unfortunately his next feature, Margot at the Wedding (2007), failed to repeat the trick; this one came across as agitating and prickly, with characters that never connected and all-too-obvious dialogue and symbolism (a dead tree?). Baumbach's new Greenberg seems to fall somewhere in the middle. It's a tough film to read; it's definitely irritating and off-putting, but it also seems to come from a place of genuine anguish.
Part of the film's success -- and trouble -- is lead actor Ben Stiller. Stiller is perfect for this kind of selfish misfit, and Baumbach reels him in before any typical Stiller slapstick can take over. But he also keeps himself at a little distance, a little defensive. He plays the title role, Roger Greenberg, who winds up in Los Angeles, housesitting while his brother and brother's family vacations in Vietnam. Roger has apparently just been released from some kind of mental hospital, and at age 41 has decided to "do nothing for a while." He passes the time doing some carpentry and writing complaining letters to corporations. While in town, he catches up with an old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he was once in a band and was once inches away from a record deal. Roger goes to a party and sees his old girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is newly divorced. He begins to imagine getting back together with her.