Greenberg (15)

Ben Stiller's anti-hero takes the shine off life in LA.

The melancholic character study Greenberg opens with a slow pan across a grey, hazily hot Los Angeles and on to the Santa Monica mountains. The light is subdued, as though the whole city is medicated. The widescreen cinematography, by Harris Savides, looks faded by the sun. It makes us feel as if we're already reminiscing nostalgically about what we're watching.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a middle-aged carpenter recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital, is similarly out of time. When he last checked, he was young. And yet all the actual young people he encounters are nonplussed by his cultural reference points. He plays a cherished Albert Hammond song and receives a blank look in return. His enthusiasm for Duran Duran is rewarded with a punch in the mouth, but then any court in the land would agree he had that one coming.

He has arrived from New York to house-sit for his wealthy brother in the Hollywood Hills, and to build a kennel for the family's German Shepherd, Mahler. Greenberg immediately commits two unpardonable sins against the city by refusing to drive and failing to be happy. He hooks up with an old friend, the sleepy, shrugging Ivan (Rhys Ifans); the pair played together in a band in their twenties, until Greenberg jacked it all in on the eve of signing a recording contract. Ivan isn't bitter, but he has the stooped weariness of someone who has shouldered too much disappointment. Greenberg, on the other hand, is spitting mad. He composes snippy correspondence (to coffee chains or airlines) and would write one letter complaining of all the stupidity in the world if only he knew where to send it.

The writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) devised the story with his wife, the actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is good in a small turn as Greenberg's unsentimental ex. It was bold of them to build a film around such an abrasive character, banking on our accumulated interest in him in the absence of any sympathetic behaviour. They take out a small insurance policy by focusing initially on Florence (Greta Gerwig), an easygoing PA to Greenberg's brother; they must have reasoned that a direct hit of Greenberg himself would have us running for the exit. And the edges of the film are littered with insights that chip away at the gloss of Los Angeles. The class system is nailed through Ivan's embarrassed hat-trick of thank-yous to a restaurant busboy, or in a brief passing exchange about the help: when Greenberg's sister-in-law asks Florence to have a word with "the gardener", Florence replies that, yes, she will talk to "Carlos".

But not since David Thewlis's Johnny in Naked have audiences been invited to devote such a large chunk of their time to a ranting misanthrope. When (or if) we come round to Greenberg, it is largely a by-product of the attention he receives from Florence. If she notices something in him, then maybe he's not as intolerable as he seems.

The character has been written as a selfish, volatile, demanding worry-wart. Stiller makes him less endearing than that. With his hair cut short around his elfin face (he trims his own locks as he talks), he is all awkward angles.

It's amusing to see him in the same frame as Florence, who is taller, more than a decade his junior and carefree where he is cynical. At a restaurant, Greenberg itemises the flaws of fellow diners as though he is reviewing them, then assesses his own performance: "I'm really on tonight!" If a situation isn't to his liking - such as when the waiters produce a birthday cake for him - he doesn't merely spoil the moment, he murders it.

In another film, Florence might have saved Greenberg from himself. Here, he has to put in some elbow grease of his own, and any improvements he makes are almost invisible to the naked eye. The slimmest shaft of hope is painfully hard-won, the most meagre crumb of optimism impossible to begrudge. (There's a fraught, macabre party scene that puts Greenberg through the wringer; after that, he deserves a break.) If we must call this movie a romcom, then at least its "com" is distinctly prickly, and any "rom" remains in permanent danger of shrivelling up before our eyes.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.