If Holden Caulfield had been created by Larry David and marinated in pickle juice until age 40, he'd be a lot like the title character of "Greenberg." Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg -- has-been musician, part-time carpenter and Olympics-class grumbler -- in Noah Baumbach's new sort-of comedy. Baumbach's movies ("The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding") cover the spread between mortifying humor and migraine-inducing family drama. In this film the gap is infinitesimal.

Even among the cavalcade of finks and egoists that populate Baumbach's body of work, Greenberg is a doozy. Greenberg, who spends part of every day writing snarky letters of complaint to corporations, politicians and two-bit taxicab companies, is almost impossible to like. He doesn't just nurse grudges. He nurtures them. He's part OCD, part SOB.

Jaw clenched, eyes suspiciously narrowed, Greenberg returns to Los Angeles after 15 years in New York. Recently sprung from a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown, he's house-sitting for his vacationing brother. "I'm trying to do nothing right now," Greenberg announces, as if drifting were a form of spiritual discipline. Though he's reflexively obnoxious around others, isolation doesn't really suit him. Needy and resentful in equal measure, he depends on others to do everything but dress him in the morning. His long-suffering old pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans, resigned and wry) has to drive him everywhere -- Greenberg claims he has forgotten how to operate a car -- and he quickly comes to rely on his brother's passive personal assistant, Flo (sleepy-voiced Greta Gerwig).

It's a match made in the seventh circle of hell. Wishy-washy Flo is as rudderless as Greenberg, but far more accommodating. When he makes a clumsy pass, she acquiesces apologetically. "I'm wearing kind of an ugly bra," she says as he wrestles her out of it. The film does not resolve itself into the sad-sack romance the scene implies. Greenberg swiftly pulls away, just as he flinches when neighbors appear in the back yard to use his brother's pool. Greenberg seems affronted by the very existence of other people. He even manages to drive away Ivan, his one loyal friend, who is living a Plan B career as a computer technician. Years earlier he had a shot at a recording career. Greenberg was the sole holdout in the band, unwilling to commit to the contract.

In a conventional movie, there would be a kernel of wounded humanity in the jagged protagonist, and his on-again, off-again courtship of Flo would gently nudge him back to humanity. Here, no. Greenberg understands others only as abstractions. Ignoring Flo, he goes on a lunch date with a long-ago crush (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, wearing fiercely designed eyeglasses), and discomfort flows off her in waves. Greenberg can't connect. He slings half-remembered therapy-talk at the people around him in place of conversation. Mistaking Flo's timid personality for a fundamental lack of self-worth, he barks, "You have value." She never questioned that, and she's wounded that he thought she had doubts.

I applaud the courage Stiller shows in taking on this role, playing a perfectly unpleasant man with bold conviction. I'd rather see Stiller in character-driven movies than battling computer-generated dinosaurs in the Smithsonian, but still. Baumbach wants us to see something redeemable in his antihero. Flo guides us that way when she gazes at Greenberg with compassionate cow eyes and says, "You like me so much more than you think you do."

Oh, honey. I have seen horror movies where people were dismembered, but never have I felt such an urge to shout "Run away! Run away!"

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186


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