In Noah Baumbach's 2005 feature, "The Squid and the Whale," we met Walt Berkman, a precocious Park Slope teenager who recalled Holden Caulfield, but without the social graces. Played by Jesse Eisenberg (who has been playing him ever since), Walt was stuttering but arrogant, vulnerable yet insensitive. The movie ended with a question: What will happen to this severely screwed-up kid?
Baumbach's latest, "Greenberg," provides a kind of answer. Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, 40, unemployed, recently discharged from a mental hospital and now determined to "do nothing." Like Walt, he has a rock-music fixation, an unearned sense of superiority and an inability to not insult people.
Crashing at his brother's home in Los Angeles, Greenberg meets Florence (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant who minds the house even while the family is on vacation. A recent college grad who clearly flunked Self Esteem 101, Florence is drawn to Greenberg even as he angrily pushes her away (after sex, of course).
Like most of Baumbach's films, "Greenberg" is a series of little moments, some bitterly funny, all sharply written and finely acted. Stiller, who usually plays the beleaguered schlemiel for laughs, turns in a darker, more nuanced performance; Gerwig is perfect as his bruisable lover; and Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") works subtle wonders as Greenberg's longest-suffering friend.
In a way, the movie belongs to Florence as much as to Greenberg. Her first line, mumbled aloud while driving - "Are you going to let me in?" - seems significant. She gets the last word, too.