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Emotionally Unbalanced

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach, best known for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical family drama that won directing and screenwriting awards at the Sundance Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, is back after a three-year hiatus (he co-wrote last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox with Wes Anderson) with another character study.

A dysfunctional, emotionally unbalanced 40-something in full-on mid-life crisis, Greenberg, to be blunt, is an asshole. He makes the nearly two hours we spend with him an unpleasant, disquieting experience, but Baumbach wouldn’t have it any other way.

The title character in Greenberg, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), arrives in Los Angeles from New York City after a six-week stay in a mental institution. In despair over a dead-end life, he’s traveled to LA to housesit for his more successful brother, Phillip (Chris Messina), and Philip’s wife, Carol (Susan Traylor) while they go on vacation with their two children (Sydney Rouviere, Koby Rouviere).

Not quite enjoying the freedom without responsibility (or minimal responsibility) that comes with job-free house-sitting, Greenberg contacts his old friend and band mate, Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans), who in turn cajoles the anxious, intemperate Greenberg into going with him to a party held by Greenberg’s other band mate, Eric Beller (Mark Duplass). There, Greenberg runs into the recently divorced Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the proverbial girlfriend that got away 15 years earlier. While Greenberg tries to reconnect with a distant Beth, he strikes up a halting, hesitant relationship with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig).

While Greenberg charts the familiar character growth from self-interest, egotism, and narcissism to self-awareness of personal flaws with the proverbial hope and promise to become a better person, the film also focuses on Florence and her own personal crisis. In her mid-20s and just out of a long-term relationship, Florence seems lost, directionless, apathetic, enervated, and, perhaps, overwhelmed by the life choices in front of her — choices that demand risk and the possibility of disappointment. She’s also a pushover, willing to let Greenberg, a man she instantly recognizes as off-center, into her life.

If the pairing of a self-centered, socially awkward character with another complementary character with rock-bottom self-esteem seems familiar, it should. Greenberg unfolds like a sporadically inspired variation on As Good as It Gets, with Ben Stiller in Jack Nicholson’s role — but younger and with only minor OCD — and Greta Gerwig in the Helen Hunt role. The mix worked in As Good as It Gets, primarily due to the chemistry between the two leads and the occasional moments where the humanity in Nicholson’s character shone through. It doesn’t work in Greenberg.

Unfortunately, Baumbach fails to make Greenberg anything except an unpleasant, unlikable character. We’re expected to applaud and identify with his penchant for speaking his mind, regardless of the social consequences, but we don’t. We’re expected to buy into the halting romantic relationship between Greenberg, who shows zero ability to connect with Florence, but we don’t.

Whether they end up together becomes, ultimately, meaningless and inconsequential, and the fault lies entirely with Baumbach. He wrote the script and directed the actors, especially Ben Stiller, to give intense, intensely unsympathetic performances, and ultimately he’s responsible for the dull, unengaging result.