There are those who claim that Punch-Drunk Love begs to be read as a deconstruction of Adam Sandler’s screen persona. While they might be right, it doesn’t make Paul Thomas Anderson’s dull slab of powder-blue whimsy any more bearable. So when I say that Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Greenberg, feels like a culmination of sorts for its star, Ben Stiller, that’s not in and of itself a ringing endorsement, although it’s certainly superior to the writer-director’s previous Margot at the Wedding. In that film, another Frat Pack satellite—Jack Black—was asked to show depths beyond his famously satyric screen persona. He failed, but then so did almost everything else in Baumbach’s faux-Chekhovian inventory of sisterly antagonism.
Even worse than its strained metaphors (a rotting family tree!) were its misguided attempts at self-reflexive, class-based satire. Take, for instance, the scene where Zane Pais’s gangly teen gazes unbelievingly through a fence at the feral, hog-wild activities of the (poorer, it’s implied) family next door. It’s a bad joke that backfires on the director, rather than the characters, or, more importantly, the audience. Baumbach’s operations are more effectively double-edged in Greenberg, and not because the filmmaker has decided to take more than a peek around the corner of that figurative social-economic divide. Aside from shifting the backdrop to Los Angeles (photographed in harsh, anxious tones by the ever-adaptable Harris Savides) Greenberg feels entirely of a piece with films like Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy—two more hours spent in the company of jaded, hyper-articulate creeps and the passive women who love (or at least fuck) them. It’s no mean feat of critical acuity to point out that Stiller’s Roger Greenberg—an embittered subculture refugee whose idea of starting over after a stint in a psych ward is to hide out in his wealthy, successful brother’s palatial L.A. home while the latter is vacationing with his brood in Vietnam—could be one of Baumbach’s screwy kids all grown up. Read Adam Nayman’s review of Greenberg.