Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the central character in writer-director Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, has issues. He's the kind of guy who can't let things go. When a cup of Starbucks coffee isn't to his liking, he writes a letter to the corporate offices to let them know about it. His philosophy is that "life is wasted on people."
On the heels of a nervous breakdown, Roger flies from New York to L.A. to spend seven weeks housesitting for his brother, who has taken a corporate trip to Vietnam. While he intends to "do nothing for awhile," he soon finds himself involved in a relationship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's cute personal assistant, who's almost 20 years younger. The role of Roger was originally written for a younger actor, but Stiller and Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) talked about changing the script so that Stiller could empathize more with the curmudgeonly character.
"I read a draft and told him that the issues I was feeling at my age were a little different," says Stiller at a roundtable of reporters at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. "We talked about being in your 40s and how that would relate to this guy, and then [Noah] went off and did a rewrite."
While Stiller didn't literally help rewrite the script, he did influence Baumbach's changes.
"I felt like we met halfway with [the character]," says Baumbach. "We spent a lot of time together going through the scenes and the lines and the relationships and the history. [Stiller] brought so much of himself to it. In the beginning, he felt unlike the character in so many ways, and by the end of it, he was scared at how much he connected to the character."
"[Baumbach] came back and changed things that made it more poignant and more of a love story," he says. "In the end, I felt very connected to [Roger]. I knew from the beginning that I was working with a writer-director who knew exactly what he wanted. I felt he had written a great script. It forced me as an actor to realize the script more. You get used to making something feel comfortable for you, but I had to dig deeper and it was great. There was no pressure but to say the lines. I really enjoyed it. It was good to be in a movie where I didn't have to worry about laughs or trying to keep an audience engaged. That was freeing too."
Greenberg's love story, however, isn't so straightforward. While Roger — a frustrated former rock musician who took up carpentry after his artistic endeavors didn't pan out — and Florence become romantically involved quite quickly (in a very awkward, very realistic sex scene), their relationship soon deteriorates as Roger lashes out at the well-intentioned girl who tries to please others more than herself.
"I think that Florence is horrified by people who have integrated their personalities seamlessly," says Gerwig, who auditioned for the role by singing a Judee Sill song a cappella in front of Baumbach and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Roger's ex-girlfriend in the film. "What's appealing about Roger is that even though he has a lot of hostility and anger, it's very external. It's more easily removed, and she can see what's behind it. Whereas I think a lot of men that she meets don't have that vulnerability. They don't have that soft part under the shell. With Roger, there's something to touch, even if you have to get past something that's ugly."
Roger's best friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), also has an ambivalent relationship with his pal. They used to play in a band together, but now that Ivan has a wife and child, they don't have as much in common. They still slap high fives and talk about their exploits, but they don't connect like they used to.
"The breaking point and the malfunction of these two guys comes from the fact that they can only converse using the language from when they knew each other 10 years ago," says Ifans. "They can only talk in band vernacular, and that doesn't have the vocabulary to address adult matters. Ivan has moved on. A broken dream doesn't have to be a shattered life."
Ultimately, Roger does change and offers an apology to the friends he has hurt. While it's not a major transformation, it's reflective of Baumbach's ability to make complex characters go through subtle changes.
"Noah said to me that in the movies, characters change 180 degrees," says Gerwig. "In life, if you changed five degrees, it would be huge. People work years to just change five degrees. This is the story of five degrees and because of that, this is a human triumph. It looks like life, but it's highly, highly crafted."
"I think what's interesting about Noah's movies is that they're not comedies and they're not dramas," he says. "They're just movies about people. Noah has a great sense of humor. That's what's great about Noah's work. He enjoys the humor in the real-life situations he writes."