March 26, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Greenberg' -- GRADE: A-

Review: Ben Stiller wins as a loser in 'Greenberg'

Greta Gerwig is a flighty personal assistant pursued by Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's latest film, "Greenberg." (Wilson Webb)

Roger Greenberg is such a pathetic, obnoxious loser.

He's 40 years old, has no job, has just been released from a mental hospital and is staying at his brother's house while the guy's out of town.

Greenberg's in Los Angeles and he doesn't drive. He jumps in a swimming pool and the best he can muster is some scared dog paddling. Nearly every line out of his mouth is an insult, a depressing take on life or a rumination on his own sad state. Again, loser.

And yet there's some strange energy that Ben Stiller brings to this twisted sad sack in "Greenberg" that keeps you from hating him. And when he attempts to hook up with his brother's flighty personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), the film takes on a daffy anti-rom-com feel that's somehow transcendent in its anxious blend of awkwardness and need. This is a couple for these rude, confused and nervous times.

"Greenberg" is the latest film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, writing here with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also plays Greenberg's ex-girlfriend. Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding") specializes in obnoxious, self-centered characters, so the key to his films is the actor's ability to bring charm to an ugly personality. Jeff Daniels did that brilliantly in "Squid," icy Nicole Kidman failed miserably in "Margot."

Stiller, showing the sort of edgy bravado he's lacked in recent years, makes Greenberg more a jumpy mess than an outright jerk. He's an idealist in search of a path who keeps stumbling over his own untied shoes, and cursing himself and everybody else as a result.

Still, "Greenberg" would be just one more cringe comedy without Gerwig, who turns in a breakthrough performance that hopefully will be remembered at next year's Oscars.

"Greenberg" is a good movie when Stiller is alone on screen; it's a great one when he's interacting with Gerwig, who is so natural it's hard to believe she's not improvising. The princess of the ultra-indie "mumblecore" film movement, Gerwig comes across as the new Diane Keaton here, a completely individual spirit.

It's a good thing the chemistry and characters work so well, though, because "Greenberg" has very little in the way of story.

Greenberg returns to his home town of L.A., meets up with two guys (Rhys Ifans, Mark Duplass) he used to be in a band with (Greenberg apparently had a meltdown when it came time for them to sign a major contract), tries to re-spark things with his ex-girlfriend (Jason Leigh) and has to deal with his brother's seriously ill dog.

He and Gerwig's Florence have one stilted, uncomfortable encounter after another and the film seems to be going nowhere until it doesn't, ending instead on a sweet note of connection.

In many ways this is Baumbach's best film, filled with his bitter but often funny misanthropic perspective ("Life is wasted on people," Greenberg proclaims at one point), but buoyed by the undeniable likability of Stiller and Gerwig.

True, Baumbach is again rolling around in an angst-ridden, negative, mean-spirited world. But this time you get the feeling he's smiling behind the camera. So you smile back.

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