Modern life is rubbish

Saw Greenberg, the new one from Noah Baumbach, the writer-director who found fame with the semi-autobiographical The Squid And The Whale a couple of years ago. He specialises, or seems to, in neurotic intellectuals or bohemians who find human relationships tricky. In Greenberg, our social inadequate is actually a 41-year-old ex-musician turned carpenter who decides to “do nothing” for a while after recovering from a nervous breakdown, moving back to LA from New York, clearly a profound move. He is played by Ben Stiller, who also makes a profound move, from the more wacky, gurning, full-on comedy for which he is still best known to a much more subtle, downbeat, mumbling style.

The way Baumbach writes, and directs, leaves you in no doubt that there are two types of people: those who are always rushing around, and those who move at a more sedate pace. Greenberg is house-sitting for his brother, whose family we see briefly at the beginning, in a rush. Greenberg arrives, without ceremony, and slows the pace down: he’s an inveterate letter-writer, but the letters do not get immediately typed up or sent; he seems bemused by everything around him. Although he’s there to build a kennel for the German Shepherd, Mahler – not a dog that races around either; we assume he is elderly, and when he falls ill it takes Greenberg all day to notice he hasn’t moved – our man does not break a sweat. And when he gets into the pool, he can barely doggy-paddle the length of it.

That he falls in love with the twentysomething au pair/PA Florence played by current indie darling Greta Gerwig, also a languid individual, is preordained. He keeps calling her, as she can run a house, and her own life, but he is incapable. He also exhibits antisocial behaviours – ranting, pushing people away, starting fights, and all the while expecting to be driven home (that he doesn’t drive is Baumbach’s shortcut to describing his fish-out-of-water status). Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains In Southern California becomes the film’s pivot, in that it’s like a theme tune and Greenberg remember when it was always on the radio while Florence, too young, does not. It unites yet divides them. (Later, Greenberg tries to force Duran Duran’s The Chauffeur on a party of twentysomethings, to no avail.) Florence occasionally sings, awkwardly but not without talent, in a small indie club. Greenberg makes her a mix CD of the kind of female singers she likes but does not know. One is Karen Dalton.

Just as the comedy of embarrassment has become a staple on TV, Baumbach – like Woody Allen before him, and Mike Leigh over this side of the Atlantic – delights in awkward. The difficult situations in Goldberg’s life are of his own making; he pretty much forces himself upon Florence back at her apartment on the pretext of going out for a drink with her. They share a single beer and he kisses her. She is willing, but naturally, this being an American indie film, his attempts at physical seduction are gauche and clumsy and too fast. When he pushes up her bra (which she apologises for, and he says is “like a bandage”) and pulls down her tights to prepare for hurried cunnilungus, it’s a moment of social horror where I felt Baumbach was pushing the awkward lever too far. We do care about these fidgety, self-conscious lovers, with their inappropriate anecdotes (she causes him to walk out with one about stripping for two frat boys after a dare), but they are their own worst enemies.

That said, almost miraculously, Baumbach is able to give Stiller and Rhys Ifans (more languid as his ex-bandmate, now fighting for his marriage to “a racist”) that actually brings some truth and passion to their ambiguous, surface-scratching friendship. A band split precipitated by Greenberg 15 years ago proves the inciting incident that still resonates across the lives of these remote companions.

I sometimes find this relatively new vein of US indie cinema predictable, but Greenberg – like The Squid & The Whale – has more than ticks and urbane narcissism and a trendy soundtrack (LCD Soundsystem, Galaxie 500) to offer. In weaving a satisfying story out of all this meandering and all these vignettes of loneliness and disconnection (Greenberg kicks the bumper of a 4×4 that nearly knocks him over, and then legs it when the vehicle stops), he happens upon some profound truths about being in your 40s and not living the life you planned. And Greenberg’s observation that “all the adults dress like kids, and the kids dress like superheroes” at a pool party is nicely phrased.

I won’t go into plot details; needless the say, the dog’s illness is not played for easy bathos, and nor is a later medical matter. I like to be surprised. This film failed to surprise me for quite a long time, and then surprised me more than once. There have been a lot of these this century: Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning, Garden State, Lars and The Real Girl, The Family Stone, About Schmidt, Sideways … I’m a fan, but the more “indie” Hollywood either co-opts or churns out, the easier it is for filmmakers to resort to button-pushing and box-ticking.

I personally found Greenberg to be a cut above. And always good to see Merritt Weaver (Studio 60, Nurse Jackie), albeit wasted in a tiny role, and in danger of being the go-to girl for indie kook.