What happens when middle-aging funnymen try to enter the world of the serious? We’ve learned the hard way in the multiplexes this year. Adam Sandler was an insufferable source of woe in the generally woe-begotten Funny People. Now, in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, Ben Stiller strains our patience as a hopelessly neurotic narcissist and could-have-been rock star who returns to Los Angeles from N.Y.C. in a mostly fruitless search of past glories and possibly loves. Suffice to say, we like his earlier, funnier movies.
It’s hard enough to make a good movie, let alone a very good one, and Baumbach is running one-for-three at this point. He is blessed and possibly semi-cursed by starting out on a strong note, with the stellar The Squid and the Whale, but teetering toward the brink of pretentiousness with Margot at the Wedding, and is still in wobble mode with Greenberg. He certainly wins points for operating outside the Hollywood comfort zone, and at least aspiring toward the realm of a new, accessible art-house paradigm with his movies.
So far, he has taken his neuroses on a tour of America, settling down in site-specific locations key to the narrative fabric. In Squid it was Brooklyn, in Margot, the Hamptons. We get Los Angeles and her civic and symbolic highs and lows in Greenberg. At times, especially in the party scenes, it echoes of the L.A. mentality-indicting quality of The Anniversary Party, which Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s wife and cowriter here) also cowrote and starred in. That was a night-in-the-life of the navel-gazing industry town, as conveyed through the prattling antics of partygoers in one of the canyons on the L.A. outskirts. In Greenberg, the outskirts in question are partly interior ones, in the crazed and house-of-mirrors mind of our self-absorbed protagonist.
Oddly enough, one not-so-sideline impression we come away with is that this is also a dog lover’s film: Through his advancing care and compassion toward the family dog, Mahler, Greenberg is at his most humane when dealing with a canine. That said, any possible “happy ending” in which he might get the girl arrives with an implied disclaimer: We hope she wakes up and smells the narcissism in her mate.