Roger Greenberg is one of the most unlikeable characters to ever grace the big screen.
In Kicking and Screaming —the 1995 indie, not the Will Ferrell soccer comedy—writer-director Noah Baumbach presents a group of aggressively quotable and painfully self-conscious malcontents so afraid to leave their comfort zone they spend a full year in their college town post-graduation. If they stayed on the same path, if they didn’t progress emotionally, vocationally or even verbally, it’s likely they would curdle into Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the caustic, egomaniacal, acid-tongued fuckhead at the center of Baumbach’s sixth feature.
Like Kicking and Screaming, Greenberg is a quote machine. When asked how he’s doing, Roger quips, “Leonard Maltin would give me two and a half stars”—just as Kicking and Screaming’s Grover (Josh Hamilton) replied, “It’s OK, it’s a C-plus,” when asked about his love life.
The difference is that Roger takes no joy from his clever remarks. He can only talk in witticisms; he cannot communicate “normally” with other people. Everything he says has to be unusual and smart and funny, even if no one’s laughing. (“I’m weirdly on tonight,” he remarks after a string of sharp but miserable observations.) Stiller—visibly relishing not playing opposite a miniature Owen Wilson or a past-prime Robert De Niro—delivers his lines not in the amusing drawl of Kicking and Screaming’s Chris Eigeman but with a sour, joyless dirge.
He's, an asshole, and Greenberg’s shaggy dog, digression-heavy story—as with most asshole movies—details his de-assholificaton.
Sort of. Holing up at his brother’s swank Los Angeles pad while he’s on family vacation, the unemployed Roger—who once pigheadedly destroyed his band’s chance at a record deal and is now a carpenter—makes fumbling attempts at reconciliation with ex-band mates. One is semi-successful (a hollowed-out, sad-eyed Rhys Ifans) and one is a dismal failure (Mark Duplass). He fares better in seducing Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s scatterbrained personal assistant. She’s not oblivious to his dickheadedness but she claims to see the wounded soul underneath the guy who routinely insults not only her but anyone within spitting or letter-writing distance.
Like the dickheads at the center of As Good As It Gets, Igby Goes Down and Roger Dodger, Roger’s really crying on the inside, his abrasiveness a direct result of personal trauma. However, unlike them, Roger may be beyond saving. Even a couple blatant volleys for our sympathy—we’re informed he’s fresh out of a mental institute and shown he can’t swim—fail to make him less abhorrent. Baumbach—who conceived the story with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who briefly plays Roger’s Girl That Got Away—specializes in unlikeable characters, and you can chart an evolution from Jeff Daniels’ hilariously monstrous dad in The Squid and the Whale through Nicole Kidman’s kind of hilariously monstrous mom in Margot at the Wedding to Stiller’s all-out monstrous single fortysomething in Greenberg . Baumbach can’t even dedicate the entire film to this prick, instead spending the first 15 minutes—plus a much-needed respite here and there—with Florence. And even she can only stand being his doormat for so long. After withstanding so many insults and weird sex, she decamps, possibly for good, and it seems Greenberg will end, like Squid and Margot , with its protagonist running from his problems.
What makes this at all tolerable—apart from the lazy, hazy L.A. vibe bottled up by Gus Van Sant’s cinematographer Harris Savides—is Gerwig’s Florence. The apparent break-out star of the so-called “mumblecore” movement, Gerwig is as unpolished as usual. (“I’m wearing a kind of weird bra,” she blurts out mid-seduction.) But she’s considerably more downbeat than in previous outings, a kind of depressive Annie Hall rather than her normal flibertigibit.
Greenberg is by far Baumbach’s darkest film and, not coincidentally, not his best. But it’s a good sign that he’s willing to inject a wild-card element like Gerwig into a schtick that could, if left to its own course, soon become as unbearable as Roger Greenberg.
The unwritten rule is: likable lead chracters. They can be a bit dickish, but the audience must feel safe rooting for their betterment.