“I just don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” declares the 25-year-old nanny/assistant played by Greta Gerwig in “Greenberg,” and the same could be said of everyone else who drifts through Noah Baumbach’s unemphatically comic new feature. As a study of stasis and of people conscious of not living the lives they had imagined for themselves, the picture offers a bracing undertow of seriousness beneath the deceptively casual, dramatically offhand surface, even if the characters’ vague ambitions and aimless actions leave the film seeming relatively uneventful on a moment-to-moment basis. Ben Stiller’s central presence at least gives this sneakily ingratiating effort a shot at a general audience, but it will be most appreciated by followers of distinctively flavored, off-center indie-style fare.
Before anything else, it should be stressed that “Greenberg” is an outstanding L.A. movie. Heretofore perceived as a quintessential New York filmmaker due especially to his last two features, “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” Baumbach, having worked up the story with Jennifer Jason Leigh (who co-wrote and co-directed the very L.A. “The Anniversary Party”), conveys a strong sense of what it’s like to live in the city. Except for the opening shots, which seem specifically designed to spotlight Los Angeles at its smoggy worst, the metropolis is presented from ground level without editorializing and with a fine balance between the beauty and the blight, the ease and the hassle, the luxury and the basic, the stimulating and the banal.
It’s the Los Angeles any even reasonably comfortable resident experiences on a daily basis, except for the more-than-comfortable house where two strangers meet by chance. Gerwig’s Florence Marr is left in charge of a spacious Hollywood Hills home when the Greenbergs, for whom she works as a family assistant, go overseas. But then the man-of-the-house’s brother Roger (Stiller) turns up. Having just begun to emerge after a nervous breakdown in New York, he announces that he intends to remain for six weeks while “trying to do nothing for a while,” except for building a new doghouse for the family canine.
Even in this becalmed state, Roger is a handful. Sharp-minded but vaguely intentioned, unassertive but prone to explosive eruptions and quite addicted to ChapStick, Roger is a pile of neuroses. Not only that, but he can’t drive. Florence, who has just gotten out of a long relationship, is sufficiently drawn to his issues and complicated personality to spend time with him. She chauffeurs him around and, without a murmur of dissent, unhesitatingly submits to his abrupt display of sexual interest.
Latter development results in a couple of the most bizarrely impassive, juiceless, abbreviated and, in a word, unbelievable sex scenes ever put onscreen. It’s unclear what either of them is feeling or thinking before, during or afterward, and the encounters are over so quickly it’s as if they almost didn’t happen. Even if the point is that the characters don’t know what they want, usually people know if they want that.
There are other things going on, at an equally low boil. Florence imagines herself a singer, but her one ineffectual performance at an open-mike night inspires no illusions of “American Idol” in her future. Aside from composing numerous letters of complaint to businesses and government entities, Roger catches up with an ex who’s now a mom (Leigh), to little effect, as well as with former close friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a British former bandmate who’s struggled to kick drugs and booze and is undergoing a painful trial separation from his wife.
The resentment Ivan feels over his old pal’s perceived past misdeeds comes as a shock to Roger, whose immediate response is denial. When Florence doubles his displeasure by becoming pissed off at him as well, how does Roger react? By indulging copiously in drugs for the first time in years and by firing off his funniest line to the seemingly worry-free twentysomethings who provide him with coke at a party: “I hope I die before I end up meeting any of you in a job interview.”
Baumbach directs by deliberately withholding dramatic emphasis and emotional crescendos. All events, from mundane daily exchanges to the most pointed personal disclosures, are presented on an equal plane as taking up whatever short amount of time they last. Conversely, Roger can react explosively to the smallest thing but remain calm in the face of impactful issues. This calls for a different sort of Stiller performance from what audiences are accustomed to; it’s showy in a way, but smaller, more thoughtful, unpredictable — a portrait of a guy easy to believe as adrift with few if any friends, 40 and without a family.
Familiar until now only to fans of ultra-low-budgeters such as “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Baghead,” Gerwig here makes her move toward the mainstream with work likely to divide, or at least puzzle, viewers. A big young woman who’s attractive enough but not at all in the usual glamorous-actress mode, she offers no perceptible performance in the popularly received sense; you don’t detect impulse, calculation, yearning, hidden feelings or anything else beneath the surface. She just seems completely real, behaving the way people do, just reacting to things as they happen. Either she’s a total natural — most likely — or she has the most invisible technique of any modern actor. Either way, interest will surround her subsequent work.
A subdued performance technique works very well here for Ifans, who strongly conveys in a minimum of time the difficulties Ivan is going through.
Lenser Harris Savides’ contributions to the film’s success in capturing a lived-in L.A. feel cannot be underestimated, and the same goes for Ford Wheeler’s production design and the selection of locations, which includes undoubtedly the longest film sequence ever to take place in the legendary Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with real waiters. Songs by James Murphy provide a musical echo to aspects of what’s going on with the title character.