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Emotion, Characters Ring True in Ben Stiller’s Film ‘Greenberg’

"Greenberg" is about embracing the life you never planned on - albeit awkwardly and with a flurry of caveats and complaints.

It may not appeal to those seeking escape or non-stop action. But for those looking for realistic, complex characters coping with believable emotional hurdles, this is an unexpected gem.

Director Noah Baumbach wrote a perceptive slice-of-life script from a story he conceived with his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

As with his sharply observed The Squid and the Whale in 2005, Baumbach finds humor and pathos in a smart, neurotic and self-involved character. Ben Stiller is superb as the curmudgeonly Roger Greenberg, a character who is light-years away from most of Stiller's comic foils.

Roger is 40ish and riding out an especially virulent midlife crisis. He leaves his New York existence to house-sit at the Hollywood Hills home of his brother Philip (Chris Messina), who is on an extended vacation with his wife and two children.

Roger brings his New York state of mind to Los Angeles. Though raised in Southern California, he refuses to drive and mistrusts most people. He stays primarily inside his brother's sprawling house, keeping an eye on the family's German shepherd, Mahler, and venturing out sporadically to build a doghouse or pick up groceries.

Florence (a pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig) works for Philip and has promised to look in on the dog. She's 25, an aspiring singer and as open-hearted and accepting as Roger is cantankerous and edgy. But both are supremely ill at ease.

When Florence and Roger connect romantically, it's in clumsy fits and starts. Stiller and Gerwig are terrific together.

Disarmingly honest, Florence has an inherent goodness about her. Roger, on the other hand, is mercurial and given to bouts of both cruelty and sweetness. When he's not lackadaisically building Mahler's doghouse, he's firing off angry letters to everyone from American Airlines to Starbucks, railing against ineptitude and general corporate policies.

Rhys Ifans is also excellent as Ivan, Roger's passive but slightly more mature best friend. Their friendship is focused on shared history, so when they finally delve below the surface, moving observations bubble up.

Baumbach has an undeniable feel for the natural rhythms of speech and telling details of behavior, which makes this rambling story powerfully honest, insightful and poignant.

Rating: R for some strong sexuality, drug use and language.

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