“I just don't know what I’m doing with my life”, declares the 25-year-old nanny played by newcomer Greta Gerwig in Greenberg. Join the club, Greta. The rest of the people who meander through Noah Baumbach’s casually uncomfortable black comedy aren't going to be much help.
Gerwig’s listless Florence is left in charge when the busy Greenberg family, for whom she works as a Jill-of-all-trades assistant, take a long holiday in Vietnam. Florence is content to watch the house and walk the dog while the family are away, but she is also asked to look in on Roger, the dad's brother. Roger is about to turn 41 and works as a carpenter. He has come to LA from New York to find some space and quiet to help him recover from a nervous breakdown. When Florence asks him if he needs anything, he writes a shopping list: whiskey and ice-cream. Confused, lonely and feeling his way back to health, Roger finds his match in the vulnerable Florence, who drives him around the city and, in an excruciating early sex scene, almost sleeps with him. Despite the awkwardness, they are drawn together, seemingly by nothing other than a desire to do something with somebody, anything with anyone.
The plot gradually reveals other things going on in the same spiky mood and at a similarly low temperature. Roger meets up with an old ex-girlfriend (played by co-writer and producer Jennifer Jason Leigh). They go on an excruciatingly kind date, where Roger’s romantic notions are deflated as gently as a hot air balloon. Occasionally, he rouses himself from self-pity long enough to write letters of complaint to various companies and government departments, giving out about trivialities. He never gets a reply. Roger reconnects with his British ex-pat former best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who used to play in their failed rock band, before he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Now a bored IT technician, Ivan acts as Roger’s mentor, cheerleader and conscience for the few weeks he spends in LA.
If for long periods of the film, nothing much seems to be happening, Baumbach’s static mood and strained progression builds into an astute study of ordinary people not living the lives they had once dreamt they would or, somehow worse, rueing the opportunities they missed. Not that any of these characters improve themselves along the way; Baumbach deliberately avoids staging dramatic confrontations or preaching a sermon. Greenberg is not about redemption, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. What matters is who it happens to.
This is an understated study of awkward people, a film that will make you squirm with embarrassment even as you fall for the brilliantly drawn characters. We have become so accustomed to his frantic funny-man routine, it comes as a surprise to discover that Stiller can do straight drama. His inward-looking, angst-ridden performance as a man desperate to recover his mojo is, at times, dangerously unpredictable. A knot of maddening tics and complex anxieties, Stiller is not actively looking for us to empathise with Roger but we do, in time, anyway. He’s funny without being comedic, sympathetic without ever being amiable, sad without being maudlin. Opposite him, in a show-stealing turn as the woman who can organise everyone else’s lives but can do nothing for herself, Gerwig gives a performance of such consummate naturalism she doesn’t appear to be acting at all.
The move from his native New York to Los Angeles has done Baumbach a power of good. The new location, much like the film itself, is packed with contradictory elements: slanted golden sunlight and sudden, torrential rain, laid back hippies and twitchy businesspeople, lazy afternoons by the pool followed by frantic, house-wrecking parties. Unlike the New York of The Squid & The Whale, where the towering, bustling city overwhelmed the people, this little-seen backstreet vision of LA sits unobtrusively in the background, adding character without stealing the show.