Thursday, November 14, 2013


Greta Gerwig: Frances Ha

There was something about the trailers last spring that made Frances Ha seem an obvious favorite to become this year's indy gorilla. It looked vibrant, idiosyncratic, yet mysterious enough for people to wonder what the hell it was all about. Plus, Greta Gerwig has been on the brink of a type of stardom for a while.

While Frances Ha didn't score to the degree of a Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, it indeed turned out to be the year's indy darling, with Gerwig proving that she's the text message era's Parker Posey (minus the mischievous spark). Director Noah Baumbach wanted to ape the techniques of French New Wave films of the 1960s, but with modern New York characters. Fair enough - the broke and the beautiful have always been popular subjects -  but in the end, despite the artsy flourishes, despite that memorable scene of Frances running down the street as if being propelled by the David Bowie music on the soundtrack,  and despite the occasional crumb of wit, Frances Ha was just another story of arrested development. The key crisis of the current generation appears to be a fear of growing up.
Frances (Gerwig) is 27, and enjoying a non-romantic love affair with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They live an idyllic life of doing nothing,  play-fighting in the park,  reading to each other, nuzzling on each other's shoulders. They're slightly delusional, too; Sophie doesn't read, but imagines herself becoming a famous publisher; Frances falls down a lot and walks like a man, but thinks she has a future as a dancer. Their little life together is sort of cute, but annoying, like a Lhasa Apso.
Sophie eventually crushes their dream world by accepting another friend's offer to live together in an upscale Tribeca apartment. Frances is destroyed by Sophie's moving out, and the rest of the film follows poor Frances as she tries to carry on without her best friend.
She tries various things: she moves in with some hipster boys who mean well, but can never replace Sophie; she visits her parents in Sacramento; she takes an impulsive trip to Paris (if Baumbach had aped Italian movies, would she have gone to Rome?); she takes odd jobs; she makes new friends; she gets drunk; she wanders and flails. Sophie, meanwhile, gets married and moves to Japan. Sophie and Frances will eventually reunite, but not in the way Frances had hoped. The film meanders to a conclusion of sorts, with Frances finally taking a step towards maturity, and I'll admit, the final scene where the title of the movie is explained is rather pretty.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, saves the film. She has a clumsy cuteness about her, and through her we sense that Frances has a big heart. The scene where she waves goodbye to her parents on an airport escalator is touching, and far more meaningful than all of the cheesy declarations of love she dumps on Sophie. Still, her constant self-pity is hard to take, and she isn't someone I'd always want to be around. As Sophie, Sumner is rather prickly, and for the life of me I can't see why Frances adores her. Frances likes to say,"We're the same person with different hair," but Sophie never displays any of the redeeming qualities that we see in Frances. Sophie is the sort of twit who enters an apartment, looks at the furniture, and says, "This apartment is too aware of itself." Fortunately, the movie is only 90 minutes long, as if Baumbach and Gerwig know such pompous airheads couldn't sustain a longer film.

There are some interesting touches, though. When running to a restaurant to meet one of her friends, Frances takes a nasty tumble on the sidewalk. We don't see the actual impact, but when she arrives at the restaurant, her friend notices she's bleeding. Frances hadn't even noticed. The city, you see, is beating the hell out of her and she's too self-absorbed to realize it. It's a nice touch. The film has a few of these. But not enough to make a meal. Once it ended, I was barely able to remember how it began. I had to consult another review to refresh my memory, and then, yes, I remembered that Frances had a boyfriend at the film's beginning, a petulant wimp who was angry with her because she wouldn't buy him a cat, or something. 

Frances Ha is also a poor argument for shooting in black and white,  at times resembling a child's black crayon drawing, smudged into blurs. I don't have to list the great black and white films of the past, and it's not fair to compare Baumbach to the great directors who used black and white, but he's the one who entered the arena.  Baumbach may also have accomplished a first: he made Paris look boring. Also, the New York shown in Frances Ha comes off as a dull, very expensive place that drains one while giving nothing in return. Not only did I not see why Frances loved Sophie, I didn't see why she loved New York.

In a fawning essay that accompanies the Criterion disc, playwright Annie Baker notes that the film has finally captured how young people talk these days. I don't know if this is true or not, but if it is, then young people these days don't sound like much of anything, The actors here, both male and female, all look like puppies at the dog pound, all self-consciously cute, hoping you'll be impressed enough by one of their acerbic comments to take one of them home.  They also seem terribly frightened of everything, particularly Frances, whose tunnel vision is such that the worst thing she can imagine is a future without Sophie to cuddle with. The others cling to dreams involving some small corner of show business. One of Frances' male roommates dreams of writing for Saturday Night Live, then talks himself out of it because the show isn't as good as it used to be. Instead, he resolves to write Gremlins III. This is funny, I guess, but such character quirks might better suit a short story, not a feature film. 
At least Frances seems comfortable at the film's end. As she guides a bunch of young dancers through her own choreography, she appears to grow more wise before our eyes, relieved that maturity was not as painful or difficult as she may have believed, and proving there may still be hope for the insipid.

Another recent movie where a woman loses everything and has to figure out where she belongs is Girl Most Likely. Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a failed New york writer  who attempts suicide after losing her job and her boyfriend. The punchline is that the hospital  leaves her in the care of her mother, a rather tough looking New Jersyite played by Annette Bening.  Imogene hates the idea so much that the doctors have to give her tranquilizers to calm her down. When she comes to, she's in a casino parking lot while her mother is inside gambling.  The two of them trying to get along would be enough for a movie, but Girl Most Likely has at least three or four more plots to come, as if the filmmakers didn't trust any of them enough on their own.

Imogene is taken back to her hometown of Ocean City NJ, which she abhors, and learns that her mother has rented her old room to a boarder, which means she'll have to sleep in the basement. Imogene strikes up a romance with the boarder, even though he's a lot younger than she is and performs in a Backstreet Boys cover band. Mom also has a boyfriend, a weird character known as "The Bouche," (played by Matt Dillon as if he's reviving his role from Something About Mary). Imogene also has a brother who is a bit of a simpleton, and to top things off, she learns that the father she always thought was dead is actually still alive. Is this too much? You bet it is. The movie feels like an overstuffed Italian sub with everything on it.

Quite a bit of Girl Most Likely feels like recycled bits from other movies. Dillon is the sort of guy who tells what seem like lies about being in the CIA, but turns out to be an actual CIA operative. Bening is the usual mother with a heart of gold, despite her gambling. Wiig, not as animated as usual, seems to redo her shtick from Bridesmaids, including a stint in a jail cell, and an obligatory drunk scene. Still, Wiig is a likable actress, and even though you can see the punches long before they're thrown, it's a likable movie. You know it will end up with Wiig learning to love her wacky family, and that no one is going to get hurt.

The directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini has brought us some very good movies in the past, including   American Splendor (2003) and HBO's Cinema Verite (2011). I don't know how their partnership works, but they're one of Hollywood's unheralded talents. Even a slight misfire like Girl Most Likely is watchable.  Plus, Blondie is on the soundtrack, which always makes me happy.


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