It’s likely that Baumbach and Stiller think scenes like that are a mark of integrity, of an imperative to flout the Hollywood laws of likability. But even twisted freaks—especially twisted freaks—need stature, something that transcends an individual’s jerkiness and strikes a larger chord. Greenberg? I don’t think so. The movie has the vague outlines of a formula romance (or screwball comedy) in which a prig learns to loosen up and care for someone else, but Baumbach scores points off his protagonist in a way that’s almost pathological, like people who hate themselves so much that they have to be the first (and loudest) to point it out. Florence tells Greenberg, “Hurt people hurt people”—and disfigured artists disfigure their art. Greenberg is so damaged (by parents?) that even his supposed awakening reeks of childish egotism.
On their own terms and removed from their scaffolding, some scenes in Greenberg are brilliantly discomfiting. Greenberg’s meet-ups with Rhys Ifan as the ex-bandmate he once let down by walking away from a recording contract are droopy, awkward marvels. When Greenberg finds himself at a party with people twenty years his junior, his escalating (drug-fueled) anger at being middle-aged and left behind has a frightening edge, and the kids’ reaction—embarrassment, amused contempt—is just right. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, co-wrote the story and has a too-brief role as Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend. (It would be terrible if Leigh, whose acting was diminished by self-consciousness in the nineties, should disappear from screens at the moment she has recovered her equilibrium.) Leigh must have had a hand in the shaping of Florence, which Gerwig made her own. With her slightly abstracted air, she makes sense of the character by finding her music. Early on, when Florence is running errands, Gerwig almost sings her lines, the melody keeping her buoyed up, carrying her through the small indignities of servitude. Later, enduring a fusillade of passive-aggressive abuse, she clings to whatever tiny musical motif she can summon to keep craziness at bay. Greenberg would be a heckuva movie if we could just get Greenberg out of there.