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If you tend to describe as “pointless” movies which do not follow a clearly defined character arc, you are not likely to be the audience for this, the latest film by writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding). It offers a few weeks in the company of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). In his early 20s he was a musician who sneered at what turned out to be his only shot at fame and fortune. Now 40 and a carpenter, he has returned to Los Angeles for the first time in over a decade to recuperate after a nervous breakdown. Staying at his brother’s house while he and his family are away on a long vacation, Greenberg gives no evidence of trying to adjust to the world: he refuses to drive, writes prolix letters of complaint to companies like Starbucks and American Airlines, and gives unwanted advice to his former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who has had life problems of his own.

Greenberg isn’t much more likeable to us than he is to the people around him. For reasons he probably can’t explain to himself, he starts spending time with Florence (mumblecore fave Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant. At a loss for what to do since graduating from college, Florence seems unwilling to say no to anything life throws here way. Certainly few other women would tolerate the kind of behavior Greenberg lobs at her, though maybe she’s just curious to see what he will do next, at least to a certain point.

Greenberg has some of the squirm-inducing character humor that marked Squid and the Whale, including what I can only hope is the year’s most uncomfortable sex scene. I’m not as a rule a fan of Ben Stiller, but I had to admire his ability and willingness not to play for audience sympathy: whether or not the role was written for him (by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also appears briefly), I can’t imagine another actor pulling it off. Whether you want to or not, you will eventually (if you’re honest) see something of yourself in this outsider pretending that all the doors are locked.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Greenberg

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