Roger Greenberg is a real piece of work. When a long-suffering friend offers the cozy old chestnut that "Youth is wasted on the young," Roger snaps, "Life is wasted on people." He should know; he has spent years tossing his in the waste bin.
Freshly out of an extended stay in a New York mental ward and now house-sitting his brother's L.A mansion, he's a misanthropic mess of a man, at war with nearly everyone and everything crossing his path. He spends days fiddling with a dog house, alienating old bandmates, and dashing off pissy little missives to such powers as Starbucks, who he applauds for successfully manufacturing fast-food coffee culture, except that it totally "sucks."
These are but small distractions until he meets his brother's lovely young assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), who might be the lighthouse that pierces his terminal cloud of self-absorption.
That we care at all about this jerk is a testament to Ben Stiller and writer-director Noah Baumbach, both of whom have made careers of finding dark humor in discomfort. The brainy Baumbach has tapped this vein since the '90s, with classics (The Squid and the Whale) and major disappointments (Margot at the Wedding). Aside from occasional satirical triumphs directing his own material (Tropic Thunder), Stiller has lately appeared in a string of cringe-worthy mainstream comedies and watered-down family romps. But here's to second chances, and sometimes third or fourths, because together this clever duo has crafted its strongest work and the year's best film.
This is Stiller at his most alien and sterile. As a kind of aggressive postmodern update of Woody Allen's formula — though he may be the younger proxy that Woody has looked for all these years — Stiller takes his innate neurotic twitch to the logical end. He's so angry that he makes Larry David look cuddly, and when he chides a party full of coked-up twentysomethings for their insensitivity and casual cruelty, the irony is lost on him.
The antidote to so much bitterness is Gerwig's enchanting work as Florence, so sweetly shy that when he makes a clumsy move on her she's only worried about her ugly bra. Despite his callous efforts to push her away, she comes back, not because she doesn't know what she's doing but because she knows what she wants.
It's a delicate, fumbling romance full of breathtaking stops and starts, adhering to the basic structure of rom-com orthodoxy but more thrilling by a smart, blunt script, adult direction and emotionally naked performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a bit part as Roger's old flame who has moved on, and she also co-wrote the script, lending the female roles depth they might've otherwise lacked.
It's the details (like a Jewish family owning a German shepherd named Mahler) that get the laughs, but the quiet moments linger and overflow with soul and messy adulthood. When Florence smartly declares that "Hurt people hurt people," we can believe her, but we don't just give up on loving them out of spite.
Opens Friday, March 26, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.