Greenberg, about a discontented 40 year old who's not at all sure what he's doing with his life, is a provocative slice of life - but it's not for all tastes. It moves slowly and demands extra attention, but even if you're really into the story you might wonder where those 107 minutes went.
Ben Stiller, in a terrific performance, is the titular ne'er do well, an itinerant carpenter housesitting for his brother in Los Angeles for six weeks. During that time, be meets and falls in and out of like for his brother's executive assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig, who's also magnificent), who's just as awkward as Roger Greenberg.
The bulk of the film covers their relationship on one track and the events of Greenberg's past that have led to his existential where-am-I ponderances. Some 15 years earlier, Roger was in a band out of college with a few good friends. They were apparently quite good, but when a record company offered them a deal, Roger turned it down, afraid of the success it might bring. This led to a serious rift in the band, causing each member to go his separate way; none of the members has played much music in the intervening years.
Liking Roger isn't easy for anyone, not even the audience. He's sort of a jerk. (It's mentioned that he's just been released from a mental institution, although the cause for his hospitalization is not explained.) The film indicates that Roger has problems maintaining relationships, sometimes acting out - and lashing out - in order to keep himself safe and serene. His arrival in LA allows him to reconnect with several of his old friends, many of whom he hasn't seen in those 15 years.
It's these fractured relationships that hold the key to Greenberg's life. At times, he tries to patch things up and move on with his life, but he's just as likely to snap at the friend or lapse into the same behavioral issues that had plagued him as a young man.
Stiller is really, really good in this. He's surprisingly very good at showing myriad emotions convincingly. At once, you believe Greenberg is a polarizing, hurting, hurtful man on the cusp of the rest of his life. Stiller's brand of comedy can take time to grow on someone, but he really shows his range here. I certainly didn't know he could plumb the depths of a character like he did to Roger Greenberg.
Gerwig is his equal and is a real presence here. Florence is - like her namesake Nightingale - a huge help to Greenberg's brother as his assistant, and he's much more savvy about taking care of the house than Greenberg is about taking care of himself (in a funny early scene, she asks him to make a list of things for her to get at the store, and he writes "whiskey" and "sandwiches"). But as good as she is at her professional life, her personal life is an absolute mess. She goes on one-night stands because they feel good - okay, no problem there - but she has few true connections in life. She has one good friend, and you get the impression that her family isn't really close to her (she says her niece doesn't relate too well to her). Florence is physically and emotionally awkward, unsure of herself in all ways save for her job, in which she's commanding. This, of course, also makes her terribly vulnerable to the advances of the older Greenberg.
So the acting is really top notch, but the movie just isn't for everyone. Here's why. There's a lot of plot, a lot of things happening, but very little is resolved or accomplished; the film almost feels like a stream of consciousness to which we're privy. What WILL Greenberg do after the six weeks are up? Will he stay with Florence? Will he jilt her? In the end, does it really matter? Probably not; the ending is abrupt, although not out of place for the rest of the film. But one really needs to be atuned to Greenberg's plight in order to enjoy the film. If one isn't, the movie's mostly dull with bits of funny moments interspersed throughout. I didn't find it terribly heartwarming, just a character study of an unlikable character. Which is not a bad thing at all, but this one just didn't completely work for me.