Greenberg (15)

Shame it’s all about the boy
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The New York writer-director Noah Baumbach makes movies about family, but he doesn't deal in the traditional language of those movies: there aren't hugs, or lessons, or those redemptive moments when the character who we thought was a louse turns out to be decent and vulnerable instead.

In Baumbach's world, the louse tends to stay a louse, because that's just the way it is. His semi-autobiographical drama The Squid and the Whale (2005) was a fantastically droll and sad portrait of a divorce and its fall-out, which gave Jeff Daniels one of the roles of his career as the pompous professor father. But Baumbach mislaid the drollery and cranked up the meanness in his follow-up, Margot at the Wedding (2007), a tale of two squabbling sisters that seemed to rejoice in the grind and petulance of familial dysfunction. The ties that bind can also throttle the life out of a comedy.

His latest, Greenberg, seems initially to pull back from that mood of hostility. It introduces to us a character whom – unique for Baumbach – we immediately like. She would be Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), a bright, fresh-faced young woman who, as a PA to the Greenberg family, uncomplainingly runs extra errands and overlooks their forgetfulness about paying her. She's a little lost, having recently emerged from a long relationship, and she feels foolish after a one-night stand with a stranger. She is probably not the right person to be dealing with Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), brother of her employer, who's come from New York to house-sit in LA and mind the family dog while they're on holiday. Turned 40 and just out of a mental institution, Greenberg isn't mad, but he is neurotic, antisocial, angry and morbidly self-involved. "I'm trying to do nothing for a while," he says, more than once, which is why he has time to write aggrieved letters to airlines, coffee chains, "sick-pet taxis" (they exist, apparently).

Having invited himself to Florence's apartment, he makes a sudden pass at her, and perhaps out of kindness, or a sort of loneliness, she responds. ("I'm wearing kind of an ugly bra," she says in apology). It is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Indeed, it appears to set them at odds. Florence, breaking out of her shell, tells a funny story about a night of disinhibited silliness she once enjoyed, but from Greenberg's reaction we see that something is up: he looks disbelieving, then restless, then disgusted – and walks out on her. The film could go one of two ways at this point. It could enlarge its sympathy towards Florence and investigate why she seems to be better at organising everyone's life but her own; or it could focus upon Greenberg and the burden of his volatile, needy, difficult personality. Unfortunately – you can guess from the title – it chooses the latter, which, while not a disaster, does present more of a challenge to an audience than a comedy should.

Still, it also offers what must be a collector's item: I cannot recall a single performance by Rhys Ifans I didn't find annoying, but here, as Ivan, a music friend of Greenberg's youth, he is very good indeed. Years ago they were in a band on the verge of a breakthrough, then Greenberg blew it for them by walking out. He decamped to New York and became a carpenter, while Ivan has since been struggling with his marriage and a young son. The amazing, and touching, part of it is that he doesn't resent his former bandmate; in fact, he goes out of his way to be nice. He and Florence take out Greenberg to celebrate his birthday in a restaurant, and a troupe of waiters surprise him with a chorus of "Happy Birthday" and a cake at the table. A moment of joy, right? Wrong. Greenberg explodes at it with a room-silencing obscenity. It seems that some people just don't want to be happy. When Ivan remarks that youth is wasted on the young, Greenberg moodily tries to top it: "No! Life is wasted on... people."

One keeps wondering what Baumbach intends to do with this study in emotional inadequacy. "Hurt people hurt people," says Florence, in sweet forgiveness, and the line seems to hold a revelation for Greenberg. Yet he is so caught up in himself and his own needs – the film is a terrible advert for therapy – that he never seems to understand that others might be going through hell, too. There could be a poignancy in his damage and disconnection from people, but it would require an extraordinary actor to nail it. Ben Stiller is not that actor. Deprived of his nebbish modesty and wit, he never conveys more than a reckless and boorish egomania, much as Nicole Kidman did in Margot at the Wedding. This will be called a "brave" choice by some. I didn't buy it.

And yet the film is not quite a failure. Baumbach is capable of brilliant dialogue, and certain scenes have a tidy truthfulness that recall Woody Allen at his pinnacle. Greenberg's attempt at relighting the flame with his ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's partner), now a mum, is a miniature of pathos, and his disinhibition at a party where people half his age give him drugs has an almost frightening edge to it. Greta Gerwig doesn't have to steal her scenes; they are hers from the first moment she appears. Infuriatingly, Greenberg judges Florence to be the sort of girl "if you saw her in your office you'd have a crush on her" (but, outside, not so), which is exactly the sort of arrogant remark you'd expect of him. Baumbach knows she's far better than that, and so do we – but he still devotes most of the film's thinking-time to Greenberg. And that might be simply because it's more fun to write a git like him than a girl like her.