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Total loser <br> Film is a phony despite being smart and gutsy

Loved her, hated him. Reviews don't get much older -- or shorter.

Unfortunately, "Greenberg" is all about him, not her. (If it had been about her, it might have been a good movie.) That means the year's most unfortunately overpraised movie, thus far, is about a 40-year-old loser who house-sits for his rich brother (while he and his family vacation in Vietnam) and takes up with his brother's lovely but lost 20-something assistant. They have the most awkward sex in the recent history of American movies and bond over the fate of his brother's German shepherd, Mahler, suffering from an auto-immune disorder.

You have no idea how much I want to be fair to this movie. That's what usually happens when I dislike a movie this much. It deserves praise for being occasionally funny and always smart and gutsy. It asks you to spend 107 minutes with a no-account jerk and to feel for his loneliness within. Gutsiest of all, it stars Ben Stiller, who deserves all props for entering the indie film universe in this particular, very dark way (remember that Stiller directed "The Cable Guy," the darkest comedy Jim Carrey will ever make. He knows what it's like to take audiences to murky places they weren't expecting to go.)

Because it's directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach (with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also has a small role), it has the braininess and milieu verisimilitude that his "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding" had.

To be up front here: I thought "Margot" so horribly, jubilantly true (in Updike's phrase) that I was pleased to vote for it as one of the 10 best of its year, despite the people who said I was nuts.

"Greenberg?" To paraphrase another heavyweight writer (Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman), every word of it is a lie, including "and" and "the." I didn't believe a second of it, no matter when I laughed.

"Hurt people hurt people," says the lovely young assistant, trying to explain to herself -- and him -- why she's allowing herself to be treated so badly by a total yutz (a better explanation: She doesn't want to lose her job with his rich brother).

So we're watching a humorless, middle-aged wretch, fresh from a nervous breakdown, demonstrate an endless capacity for self-absorption and tantrum and motiveless meanness.

Any friend of the assistant -- not to mention relative -- might well advise moving, changing the locks along with her phone number and never looking back.

Not our girl Florence (Gerta Gerwig). She sticks with Roger Greenberg (Stiller) despite his having nothing visible whatsoever to recommend him, in the apparent belief there's a hurt and loving human being in there somewhere beneath the rampaging comic narcissism. The way he deals with the dog Mahler proves it, right? (Nope. It proves he's afraid of the censure of his brother and his family.)

At the end of this movie -- which, to be fair, is brilliantly subtle -- it's clear to me Greenberg is a mere five hours away from another manic episode or tantrum or pointless meanness toward this lovely, lost young woman whose self-esteem is about a quart low. The movie seems to be claiming otherwise, which only confirms its front-to-back fraudulence.

What on earth could she see in him, other than his brother's genes? There's nothing appealing about his personality or history. His tendency to write crank letters is not a good sign (he's a blogger without a blog; he refuses to drive, too). A symptom of this movie's truly wretched disingenuousness is that Baumbach refuses to illuminate the tiny sliver of esteem he permits Greenberg -- the New York Times agreeing to print one of his crank letters about world affairs.

Some people guess that this movie is meant to reflect something of the relationship of Leigh and Baumbach. Which makes the phoniness even worse: She's a terrific film actress and he's a witty and very talented filmmaker.

If it's date night and you're in desperate need of a discussion or even an argument, by all means see it. If you're with someone you have no trouble talking to, missing it will deprive you of nothing, absolutely nothing.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

GREENBERG

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh

DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

RATING: R for language, drug use and very awkward sex

THE LOWDOWN: A 40-year old loser, fresh from a nervous breakdown, house-sits for his rich brother and strikes up a relationship with his brother's lovely, 20-something assistant.

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