Every director says that the sex scene in their movie is needed for essential character development. But nowhere is this ever more true than the excruciatingly awkward exchange between Ben Stiller (Roger Greenberg) and Greta Gerwig (Florence Marr) in "Greenberg."
Greenberg is all self-centered impulse -- kissing this beautiful, much-younger acquaintance over their first shared beer and pushing her onto a bed where he performs audaciously poorly in every respect. Marr shows her willingness to be pushed around as she accepts her fate with eyes working their way to the ceiling. She even apologizes for her poor bra.
Awkward-but-true character analysis is one of the great traits of "The Squid and the Whale" writer-director Noah Baumbach. We get plenty of that awkward part through the eyes of socially inept Greenberg, a 40-something lost soul trying to find himself upon returning to his home of Los Angeles.
Stiller is alarmingly good at portraying Greenberg's laundry list of tics and foibles. His letter-writing campaign to various corporate entities that irk him daily are hilarious as well as effective in showing his complete lack of real power. His great line about LA-life at a pool party also shows a keen eye for commentary: "All the men dress like children, and all the children dress like super-heroes," he mutters.
There's a lot of the nasty side of not fitting in, which the filmmakers bravely make a big part of "Greenberg." In fact, between Stiller's utterly believable performance and Baumbach's script, Greenberg is pretty much a grade-A jerk.
He has his reasons, which become even more clear in the end. But the few glimpses of understanding we do see still make a tough case for true sympathy. You actively do not want the guy to get the girl (played brilliantly by the revelation that is Gerwig) no matter what kind of pain he's in or amends he attempts.
This uber-prickly behavior is combined with Stiller appropriately playing the part with no care for his limited physical appeal. But you're at a loss to explain why even onscreen strangers are so amazingly and immediately attracted to Greenberg despite it all. The equally lost Marr can get a pass since she is damaged goods and perhaps sees something in him that her equally turned off friends don't.
But Greenberg's attendance at his niece's college-aged house party highlights the inexplicable elements of the story. The young studs immediately want to hang out with him and give him coke (only making him more of a jerk). All the hot girls immediately want to sleep with him. The next morning the youngsters sincerely want to take him away to back-packing trip to Australia. It gets absurd. In an otherwise beautiful and gentle tale about finding truth, this is one big pothole.
Some truly great moments and performances still make this a worthy movie. Rhys Ifans, the third in the lost-soul trio, is remarkable in a wild departure from his party boy screen persona. Even before the backstory of Greenberg's old friend is revealed his face displays a portrait of unfulfilled promise. Yet he's every bit gentle and patient to Greenberg's obnoxiousness. It makes you want to shake him and tell him -- just lose the jerk.