Noah Baumbach, Greenberg, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Production still. Photo: Wilson Webb. Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr (Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig).

ROGER GREENBERG (Ben Stiller), like the hyperarticulate, acid-tongued narcissists who precede him in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre—Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)—repels and attracts. Recovering from a crackup, the forty-one-year-old sometime carpenter, vowing to “do nothing” for a while, arrives in Los Angeles from New York to house-sit for his wealthy brother, Phillip, on vacation with his family in Vietnam. Frequently bedecked in a Steve Winwood T-shirt, the resolutely Gen-X Greenberg reminisces with his pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a former bandmate now struggling to keep his family together; writes angry letters to Starbucks, Hollywood Pet Taxi, and Mayor Bloomberg; and commences a dizzyingly passive-aggressive courtship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s twentysomething personal assistant.

“Hurt people hurt people,” according to one of the pop-psych bromides uttered more than once in Greenberg—its banality later revealed to have resonance even for Stiller’s bilious, cranky know-it-all. Baumbach’s fifth feature, unlike Margot at the Wedding, does more than just marvel at the noxious cruelty of its protagonist; Greenberg, though self-absorbed and self-pitying, shows the faintest signs of kindness and compassion when he’s with Florence. Her task isn’t to redeem him but to make him realize when he’s behaving outrageously.

Stiller may have the title role—and gives one of the best performances of his career—but Gerwig, awkwardly radiant, serves as the movie’s emotional ballast. Best known for her roles in mumblecore films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), Gerwig opens Greenberg driving down Sunset Boulevard as the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays on the sound track—a moment of casual ebullience similar to the scene of Gary Lockwood tooling around LA in his MG in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), which, like Greenberg, is its director’s first film set in Los Angeles. While Greenberg offers the satisfaction of seeing Stiller’s stardom being tweaked, it provides the greater pleasure of witnessing Gerwig’s stardom on the rise.

Melissa Anderson

Greenberg opens March 19 in New York and Los Angeles.