For a guy who insists he’s deliberately “doing nothing” with his life, Greenberg’s title character (Ben Stiller) keeps pretty busy. He’s building a doghouse for his brother’s pet while housesitting for him; he's constantly penning letters to businesses expressing his dissatisfaction with the most minute details of their services; he takes up an offer from women half his age to go on a deep-sea diving expedition in Australia, despite the fact that he’s a terrible swimmer.
From the sounds of it, this quirky, aging slacker’s screen saga – last June's Kalamazoo Film Society selection - might make for light viewing with plenty of laughs, except for one detail – Greenberg’s trying to deal with life outside an institution, from which he’s recently been released after recovering from a breakdown of an unspecified nature. Watching his brother’s house, in a city he left behind years ago, gives him an opportunity to reconnect with members of his old social circle, but since social norms are no longer a constraint for him, the expression of his feelings and impulses can be cause for embarrassment, pain, and alienation, as well as a certain poignancy (and laughs – this is still a comedy). Greenberg’s caught in a vicious cycle of feeling discomfort, which feeds others’ discomfort, which further feeds his own.
Stiller’s pitch-perfect performance – not too wacky, not too angst-ridden – is beautifully complemented by Greta Gerwig’s performance as his brother’s assistant, a woman in her mid-twenties whose impulsive life reflects Greenberg’s own. The two forge a tentative bond that’s constantly tested throughout the film, and one wonders if the bond can possibly last when both people live so in the moment. As with the best character-study films, Noah Baumbach’s latest doesn’t force-feed any resolutions – it’s simply enough to watch these characters try to make sense of their lives, even when they don’t live them sensibly... but who does?