Has Noah Baumbach gone soft? His last two comedies, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, had some phenomenally poisonous characters, and dialogue so lacerating it would be confiscated at customs. In contrast, the hero of Greenberg is merely brusque, self-involved and anti- social, which makes him one of Baumbach's more personable creations.
He's Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), the leader of a nearly-was indie band in the early 1990s who can't quite accept that he's now working as a carpenter in New York. Having just emerged from an institution, he flies to Los Angeles to house-sit for his holidaying brother. He meets up with a former bandmate (Rhys Ifans) who fixes computers for a living, and gets in touch with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also the film's co-plotter, and Mrs Noah Baumbach). But the person he sees the most is his brother's dogged personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething whose smiley generosity masks the same self doubt as Roger's prickly misanthropy.
Gerwig is an alumna of the naturalistic, low budget "mumblecore" scene, and Baumbach seems to have taken his cues from her: Greenberg bobs around the place with an understated, plotless honesty which is refreshingly different from the contrivances of the standard Hollywood comedy. At its best, it's a sublimely unsparing dissection of a mid-life crisis, with Gerwig's gawky lounge singer updating the Diane Keaton of Annie Hall, and Stiller as an older incarnation of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. But at its worst, Greenberg has the fatal flaw of any mumblecore film: a belief that the faltering chat of underemployed middle-class neurotics is entertainment in itself.
Baumbach, of all people, could have skewered these characters' slacker narcissism, but he's ultimately too fond of them, and in its way, Greenberg is just another romantic comedy about an emotionally stunted male being redeemed by an angelic younger woman. Surprisingly, Rhys Ifans is more sympathetic than either of them. A gentle soul who is making his peace with a life that hasn't met his expectations, his character gets Greenberg's most touching moments. But maybe I'm going soft, too.
The same can't be said of Christopher Smith, a British horror director (Creep, Severance, Triangle) who doesn't stint on the grisly dismemberings in his latest film, Black Death. Set in 1348, it stars Eddie Redmayne as a novice monk who volunteers to guide Sean Bean's knight and his gang of yellow-toothed thugs through the forests where he grew up. They're on a mission from God (or one of His bishops, anyway) to investigate a village that has been left mysteriously untouched by the plague.
Black Death may be reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it should find favour with fans of The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and any number of Hammer horror films. You've got to respect the blood and thunder of Dario Poloni's screenplay, as well as Smith's commitment to squelching, crunching nastiness. No instrument of torture is left unused.
Brooklyn's Finest is a doom-laden cop drama from the director of Training Day, but while it has that film's druggy, sweary toughness, it doesn't have the electrifying plot that went with it. Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, and Don Cheadle star in three separate storylines which don't interweave so much as brush against each other in passing. One actor plays a whiskey-soaked NYPD veteran with a week to go before retirement, one is a hotshot detective who embezzles drug money, and the third is an undercover agent who wants his old life back. The characters are despondent at the start of the film, they're despondent all the way through, and the only question is exactly how despondent they're going to be at the end.
Also Showing: 13/06/2010
Letters to Juliet (104 mins, PG)
Amanda Seyfried's fledgling journalist drives around rural Italy with Vanessa Redgrave – who appears to be a few trees short of an olive grove – and her grandson (Christopher Egan – awful), hoping to reunite Redgrave with her long lost beau. A vacuous, nauseating rom-com that's more likely to inspire hate mail than love letters.
Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (88 mins, 15)
In Jez Lewis's disturbing, heartfelt documentary, he revisits his home town in West Yorkshire, the funky tourist mecca of Hebden Bridge, to ask why so many of his childhood friends are drinking and overdosing themselves to death. There are no easy answers.
H2Oil (76 mins, 12A)
H2Oil is the third documentary to be released about Alberta's tar sands in the past three months. And although the environmental damage wrought by the Canadian oil industry makes There Will Be Blood look like Bambi, I really do hope there isn't a fourth documentary still to come.
Andrew Johnson sees if Hollywood can raise a smile with the action spoofs MacGruber and Killers. Nicholas Barber is on holiday