March 26 2010 12:00 AM

The humor of "Greenberg" is acidic — and unexpectedly touching, too

    gb.jpg“Are you going to let me in?”

    what Florence (Greta Gerwig) murmurs as she navigates the traffic on a busy Los
    Angeles street. She might ask the same question of the title character in
    “Greenberg,” writer-director Noah Baumbach’s acidic comedy, in which Ben
    Stiller plays a stubborn slacker who spends his days fashioning personal
    crusades out of minor inconveniences and wallowing in nostalgia, although it’s
    hard to imagine his supposed glory days were anymore glorious than his
    seemingly pointless present-day situation.

    — first name Roger — makes a habit of keeping the world and everyone in it at
    arm’s length, although he’s not too proud to accept an invitation from his
    well-heeled brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), to stay at Phillip’s Los Angeles
    mansion while Phillip and his family vacation in Vietnam. “He’s delicate,”
    Phillip says of Roger, a rather kind way to describe someone whose grocery list
    begins with whiskey and ice cream sandwiches and doesn’t go much further.

    Maltin would give me, like, two and a half stars,” Roger tells his former
    girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the screenplay with

    Florence is Phillip’s personal
    assistant, a woman who understands every aspect of neediness. At a party, she
    reaches out to a potential partner by telling him, “I’ve been out of college as
    long as I’ve been in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning.” Now there’s
    a pick-up line you don’t hear every day.

    since his debut film “Kicking and Screaming” 15 years ago, Baumbach has
    specialized in telling stories about privileged, jaded, often intellectual
    characters who can’t seem to get their acts together. In “The Squid and the
    Whale,” writers Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both brilliant when it comes to
    putting words down on paper and utterly clueless when it’s time to talk to
    their kids, or to each other. Nicole Kidman’s character in “Margot at the
    Wedding” is a narcissistic, never-satisfied author whose only joy comes from
    making everyone around her miserable.

    These are not particularly easy
    characters to warm up to, and neither is Roger, who initially seizes upon
    Florence’s low self-esteem and uses it as a weapon against her. When Florence
    finds herself in the midst of a major crisis and must call on Roger for help,
    he responds in shocking, mocking ways. He doesn’t treat his friend and former
    bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), much better.

    “I’m not one of those preening L.A.
    people who wants everything to be all about them,” Roger tells Florence, a
    statement that’s only half-true: Roger comes from the East Coast.

    Stiller is terrific here, investing
    himself in a character in a way he hasn’t done since his enormously underrated
    work in “Permanent Midnight” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” more than a
    decade ago. But the true revelation of “Greenberg” is Gerwig, who pulls off the
    astonishing trick of making Florence endearing and touching instead of purely
    pathetic. While Roger may treat her as a punching bag, Gerwig gives Florence a
    backbone of solid steel; it may be buried, but it’s definitely there. That core
    of strength and resilience turns a victim into a victor, and makes Florence

    In a time when many comedies pander
    to their audiences by offering up comforting clichés and lowbrow jokes, “Greenberg”
    boldly goes in exactly the opposite direction. Baumbach and Jason Leigh know
    how to put the punch in punchlines, and many of the film’s funniest moments are
    also the most disturbing.

    While they take a certain delight
    in exposing Roger’s pettiness — he writes a complaint letter to American
    Airlines not about delays or poor service, but about the low quality of the
    buttons on the recliner seats — and Florence’s all-consuming desire to be
    accepted, the writers also dare us to look beyond Roger and Florence’s flaws to
    see what lies beneath. Roger habitually coats his lips with cherry ChapStik;
    Florence frequently picks at or pinches her lips.

    Obviously, they must be made for
    each other, right?

     Greenberg showtimes