Takes time to warm up to but "Greenberg" is a pleasant surprise

Greenberg (Ben Stiller) tries loosening up

Greenberg (2010)
107 min., rated R
Grade: B +

Co-writer and director Noah Baumbach finds humor, pathos, and authentic Los Angeles flavor in the Greenberg, rebirthing Ben Stiller in an interestingly rich role.

He's Roger Greenberg, 40ish, single, and vulnerable, who leaves New York after having a nervous breakdown. He relocates to L.A. to house-sit for his brother, whose people-pleasing personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) will gladly answer any beckon call. Greenberg is a sometime carpenter but mostly a self-satisfied dud who just wants to do nothing with his life for now.

Stiller is never shticky for a moment, a strong performance in a refreshing direction like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; he taps into the not-particularly-likable title character as a narcissist—writing complaint letters to a dozen companies, speaking badly of people in public—but a relatable and ultimately sympathetic one.

Baumbach's character dramedy is low-key and smart and endearing that very well could've been overly quirky or self-conscious if it weren't for the director, writing, and actors. Without forgetting to mention, this is a wonderful showcase for Gerwig, who makes Florence an awkward young woman in a mix of candor and reluctance. Her relationship with Greenberg may remind you of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen's in Annie Hall.

For a film that feels so personal by its filmmaker and wife/co-writer/co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh, there's a lot to be said about living to learn in one's own skin.