When Ben Stiller received a call from Noah Baumbach asking the famous comedian and actor to appear in his new film, “Greenberg,” Stiller didn’t hesitate for a second.

“There are like four or five filmmakers who, if you are an actor, you basically say yes to no matter what it is,” Stiller said in a phone interview, “and Noah is definitely one of those guys for me.”

The film, a character-driven drama, is something of a departure for the beloved comedian, but one he was willing and eager to attempt.

“I was lucky enough that what he was calling me with was something I was excited by too,” Stiller said.

Anyone familiar with the previous directorial work of Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) knows he works in plausible, real life situations and deals with authentic human emotions. That’s the case again with “Greenberg,” which is quite a thoughtful little movie. Tinged with humor, but never played for laughs, the film feels like an extension of reality.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller, who has never been better) is a 40-year-old man who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown and a short stint in a mental institution. He returns to Los Angeles, where he grew up, from Manhattan when his brother and his family go on a six-week vacation in Vietnam. Greenberg’s goal in these six weeks: Do nothing. The extent of the work he wants to do is building a dog house for the family, and on a personal level, he doesn’t have much of a desire to get out and meet people.

Greenberg is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who developed the story along with her husband, Baumbach), but she’s not remotely interested. His former friends want nothing to do with him until he can come to terms with the opportunity he ruined for them and their band a decade earlier. The only person who really gives him the time of day is Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s personal assistant. She thinks Greenberg is vulnerable, and despite his problems, she enjoys his company and wants to bring him out of his shell.

Like Baumbach’s previous features, this is a very personal story. The film is all about Greenberg. He’s not the most likeable individual – he’s extremely self-involved and neurotic and he can’t admit his mistakes. It doesn’t make for the most enjoyable film because Greenberg is really hard to root for. But it’s fascinating to watch, primarily based on the strength of Stiller’s performance.

This is by far the actor’s best work ever. Most people haven’t seen this side of the man who has starred in “Zoolander,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Dodgeball.” But his director knew Stiller would excel in this role. “I always wanted someone with a sense of humor to play this part,” Baumbach said. “Obviously Ben is known for bigger comedies…but he’s done a lot of different stuff. It just seemed like he was the best person to play this.”

Stiller’s biggest accomplishment is his ability to make a genuinely unlikeable individual someone you want to root for. You hope he will change his ways, but the change is so slow-going, it tries your patience. But I applaud Stiller and Baumbach because they don’t take any shortcuts. They allow the story to develop naturally, which ultimately makes for a more rewarding experience.

Stiller’s work is equaled by that of Greta Gerwig, a relative newcomer. Florence is incredibly endearing and has a heart of gold. But the character still feels real. Like Greenberg, she’s vulnerable, but it’s more because she’s too forgiving and opens herself up to others so quickly. Gerwig is a discovery, and her excellent work here should open up more opportunities for her in the future.

While Baumbach’s films are all somewhat similar in style, tone and theme, he shows a lot of growth as a director with “Greenberg.” Besides being very well-filmed, the movie never compromises, and with a funnyman like Stiller in the lead role, it’s the mark of a true professional that he doesn’t give in to the obvious option of playing the film for laughs. In his last feature, “Margot at the Wedding,” he struggles to keep Jack Black from abandoning the more serious aspects of the film in favor of humor. Here, he and Stiller keep it straight and let the humor develop on its own.

The actor and director have a clear camaraderie, which helped them mix and mash different ideas together to create such an authentic character. “The character of Greenberg is in many ways a 50-50 collaboration between Ben and me,” Baumbach said. “Ben so inhabited the part and so transformed the character that I feel only part ownership of [Greenberg]. I feel like Ben is as responsible for him as I am.”

“Greenberg” opened Friday in limited release and is likely to expand to more theaters in the coming weeks. If you are in the mood for a thoughtful character examination, or you really like Stiller and want to see him challenge himself, check this out while you can.

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