Stiller Waters Run Deep

papervilkogreenwilsonwebb Stiller Waters Run DeepGREENBERG
RUNNING TIME 107 minutes
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Noah Baumbach
STARRING  Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans

3 Eyeballs out of 4

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When Noah Baumbach’s wonderful (and still totally underappreciated) The Squid and the Whale came out in 2006, it quickly sent a wide swath of New York’s male population spiraling into PTSD—they remembered all too well parental divorce and its resulting cockamamie 1980s custody rules (Tuesdays, Thursdays, alternating Saturdays), cheapskate and cheating parents and Park Slope back in its grimy days. With Mr. Baumbach’s latest, the melancholic, witty and ultimately quite touching Greenberg, we get a peek at what might have happened to some of those ’80s lost boys now grown up (in theory, anyway).

Ben Stiller plays the title character, Roger Greenberg, an early 40-something over-therapized neurotic, visiting L.A. from New York and staying at his younger and more successful brother’s (Chris Messina) empty house while the family heads on a family vacation to Vietnam. Greenberg’s just suffered some sort of breakdown, and seems totally adrift as he wanders the gigantic house and considers his former life, which included rock star aspirations, and his current, which involve a grocery list consisting only of ice-cream sandwiches and whiskey, and the short-term future goal of building a doghouse. Enter his brother’s assistant, the lovely Greta Gerwig, who plays Florence, a similarly lost soul in her 20s. Without any rom-com buildup or meet cute scenarios, these two collide—inevitably and awkwardly and really kind of awesomely.

Mr. Baumbach (who worked on the story with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a supporting role) has a knack for capturing real-life dialogue—particularly and hilariously how people tend not to listen to the person on the other side of the conversation—and touches on some real generational truths that should feel uncomfortably relatable to those in their 30s and 40s (one particular standout rant against the iPod-addicted 20-something generation is especially satisfying, ending with Greenberg’s summation: “I hope I die before I meet any of you in a job interview”).

Greenberg is a narcissist, a misanthrope and an annoying back-seat driver, with just enough ego and OCD that it should have been a terribly hard character to root for, except Mr. Stiller has managed to infuse his character with a mysteriously unshakable appeal (though I did wonder about what the film would have been like without such a well-known A-lister in the role; for example, if former Baumbach players Eric Stoltz, Josh Hamilton or Chris Eigeman had taken it on). But it’s one of my favorite Stiller performances, perhaps precisely because it is such a surprisingly nuanced turn. Also, it’s great to see a terrific Rhys Ifans finally overcome his gangly, goofball persona from Notting Hill and make the most of his supporting and very sympathetic role as Greenberg’s former best friend. But it’s Greta Gerwig everyone’s going to be freaking out about after they see this movie. One of those mumble-core actresses and writers in her own right (she starred in and co-wrote 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs), Ms. Gerwig makes her character feel achingly real (in addition to having looks that in one moment look awkward, and in the next moment screen-siren gorgeous).

As unlikely a pair as they might have started out, Florence—and Gerwig—is the perfect counterpart for Stiller’s Greenberg. For a movie that’s about embracing the life you never planned on, it’s ultimately optimistic about still being able to change the path you find yourself on.

svilkomerson@observer.com