Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rhys Ifans
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh
There must be a reason that so many indie directors gravitate towards characters that have been left behind. From Old Joyâ€™s Kurt to Sidewaysâ€™ Mile Raymond, there seems to be a certain level of empathy for misfits, trapped mentally in their mid twenties, obsessing over bands and pop culture while their friends have moved on to careers and marriages and the other accoutrements of adulthood.
Empathy does not necessarily imply sympathy, and Roger Greenberg, the latest wrenchingly comic character study from Noah Baumbach, is as unsympathetic as they come. A carpenter living in New York, he has returned to his childhood home of LA to house sit for his far more successful brother, after suffering a nervous breakdown. Heâ€™s a tragic figure, emotionally withdrawn, panicky in social situations, most of his friendships in tatters from neglect. Heâ€™s also a jerk, a writer of complaint letters, snappy, rude, prone to blurting out inappropriate things at inappropriate times. Played by Ben Stiller, who manages to keep his inner Zoolander under wraps to give a subtle, guarded performance, Roger Greenberg is Larry David in the body of a hipster washed up on the wrong side of forty.
The subject of much of his maladroit attention is Florence, his brotherâ€™s PA. Played by indie darling Greta Gerwig so naturally that she barely seems to be acting, Florence is a creature of pure passivity, drifting from place to place wrapped in a dreamy California inertia. The two end up in an awful, hilarious, uncomfortable sort-of relationship, seemingly for a lack of other options.
Greenberg calls her up after finding her number on his brotherâ€™s list of emergency contacts, whereupon he forces her to drive out of town to pick him up, before heading back to her apartment for one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes since Gigli. Thereâ€™s a hint of the manic pixie dreamgirl in their courtship, with a gorgeous young woman coaxing a nebbishy, socially awkward man into self-actualisation, but Greenberg shows few signs of changing. Despite a few acts of humanity, Greenberg remains as prickly and abusive, and she as passive, to the end, to the point where it seems less like a relationship and more like Stockholm Syndrome.
The relation ship politics may be slightly icky, but itâ€™s undeniably one of the funniest asshole-meets-girl tales in a while, and a refreshing antidote to the saccharine whimsy of other studio-indie hybrids like 500 Days of Summer.
By Tom Brown
Greenberg is out now through Universal Pictures International (UK)