Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

15 years ago, Noah Baumbach made his directorial début with Kicking And Screaming, the story of a group of young men who are failing to move on in life. Now he brings us Greenberg, the story of a middle-aged man who has failed to move on in life. One has to ask, what has Noah Baumbach been doing with his life all this time?

The eponymous hero of Greenberg, played with customary surliness by Ben Stiller, is an East Coast carpenter and former psychiatric hospital inmate who is staying in his brother's house in LA whilst said brother and family are away on holiday in Vietnam. During his stay, he makes the acquaintance of dissolute twentysomething Florence (Greta Gerwig) and they stumble into something which neither is prepared to identify as a relationship. Meanwhile, Greenberg's self-centeredness gradually pushes away his long-suffering friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and there's a minor emergency involving the family dog. And, um, that's about it.

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The success or failure of this sort of film ultimately depends on two things: acting and dialogue. Here the performances are uniformly well judged, each character coming across as believable and as sympathetic in their own way. The trouble is that they're not the sort of people one would necessarily bother to spend much time with in the real world. There's a great scene in which Greenberg is a dick at a party and it's fun to watch, but only for a little while; one drifts away; in real life there would be somebody more interesting to talk to. As for the dialogue, again it's very believable (verging on mumblecore), and it manages to combine this with a certain degree of wit, but laugh out loud moments are interspersed with long passages when one finds oneself wishing one had brought a book.

Having moved on so little as a filmmaker, Baumbach has now reached a point where he is parodying himself, yet he still doesn't seem to have found his own voice. More than anything, Greenberg comes across like a would-be Woody Allen film without Allen's energy or acuity. Its counter-cultural aesthetic, showing actors without make-up and deliberately downplaying glamour in its locations, is undermined by its dependence on the old Hollywood cliché of the older man, younger woman relationship, and these characters seem to have so little real interest in each other that we are left wondering why it is that we should care.

Greenberg is still not a bad film. It's elegantly directed and fans of Stiller's acting (as opposed to his own self-parodying comedy) will find his performance intriguing. More than anything, it just suffers from a desperate lack of ambition. The problem with kitchen sink drama is that, no matter how well it captures its subject, one could just stay at home and look at one's own kitchen sink and spend that ticket money on beer.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2010
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A carpenter recently released from an asylum struggles over a possible relationship whilst staying in his brother's house in Los Angeles.
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Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Juno Temple

Year: 2010

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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