Ben Stiller plays Greenberg, a bottled-up mess of neurosis and discomfort that spends his days writing letters to places like Starbucks and American Airlines. He was once a member of a band on the verge of stardom with a record deal, but Greenberg left in protest and the band fell apart and the three members were left wandering aimlessly. While house-sitting, Greenberg is also in charge of the family dog and in charge of building him a dog house. You would expect a humorous, sometimes touching relationship to unfold between Greenberg and the dog – especially when the dog falls ill – but there is nothing like that here. There are no real relationships you would find in the world it seems.
Florence, played by Greta Gerwig, is a lonely soul but a great assistant to the Greenberg family. She wanders around in an awkward existence; she has a one-night stand, she sings at some bar, she builds a romance with Greenberg that can only be described as awkward. But Greenberg treats her like shit, but not on purpose? Why exactly? There isn’t really an explanation or any kind of display of his psyche that warrants his strange treatment of Florence. He had a nervous breakdown that put him in the hospital, but we never get an explanation as to what happened. He seems bitter at times, angry at others, never smiling or optimistic. His best friend is Ivan, a former band mate played by Rhys Ifans who, frankly, seems bored. I never buy their relationship or much care about it.
Greenberg slogs along at a snail’s pace, which is ok or acceptable sometimes when the characters are people you want to spend time with. When characters are sitting at a table or looking out a window or writing a letter for extended periods of time, you had better be invested in their facial features and their reactions and thoughts. Not here. These characters are not people I care to spend any time with. Greenberg is too manic without any charm, and there is no redemption right around the corner. Florence is too scatter-brained and too weak of a person to really root for, especially when she lets Greenberg walk all over her.
Nothing happens in Greenberg worth noting. These characters don’t have any arcs. Aside from a few moments of humor that are few and far between, there is nothing learned by the end of the picture that was not understood at the beginning. Character studies rely on characters. This does not bode well for a picture that has no forward momentum in its writing or in the development of the people involved. I finished Greenberg and felt cold, but perhaps the coldness was the direction Baumbach was going for. Especially since the characters he draws together are cold and lifeless themselves.