2 out of 4 stars
Since 1995, director Noah Baumbach has made seven feature films and amassed a small but fervent following of like-minded indie/arthouse lovers. Often compared to Woody Allen, he is from and sets most of his films in New York City and writes with a marked air of angst top-loaded with awkward, irregular, often throwaway humor.
Still officially married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach began a professional and personal relationship in 2011 with Greta Gerwig, whom he also directed in the 2010 "Greenberg," his most commercial effort to date. He co-wrote "Frances Ha" with Gerwig, who also plays the title character -- a millennial who, at the age of 27, still can't seem to get a grasp on how to handle adulthood.
The plight of Frances will be familiar to many a young college graduate who -- thanks to our stagnant, idle economy -- can't get a job in their chosen field with many of them moving back home with their parents. Frances is a likeable-enough girl -- wacky, free-spirited, painfully honest and almost too self-deprecating. She often refers to herself as "undateable," which is accurate. Hygiene, fashion sense and social graces aren't high on her list of priorities, and there are few men -- at least the kind she imagines being with -- that would be seriously interested in this type of girl.
A largely shapeless movie with considerable dramatic drift and a catch-as-catch-can, freeform narrative, "Frances Ha" feels like a story that is still in first draft form. Ideas that should have been further fleshed-out are left in their skeletal state and others that add absolutely nothing to the plot and should have been excised remain only to bridge scenes and kill time. During the film's relatively short 85 minutes, there only about 30 that contain any real substance.
The biggest problem is that the writers want it both ways. They present Frances as a woman who is clearly intelligent enough to carry on conversations with cultured, highly educated people but keep her oblivious to the fact that she's probably not going to be a successful professional dancer. If one chooses to pursue a career in the performing arts, one must realize they'll either make it big (less than one percent, usually at a young age) or barely at all.
If the movie was supposed to be a reflection of our cruel financial times, it wouldn't allow a low-wage earner like Frances to bounce around from one overpriced apartment to another paying upward of $1,200 a month in rent -- or flying to Paris for a weekend on a whim. If they had wanted authenticity, they probably should not have made the film as a comedy. As it exists, it is also one that is only marginally and sporadically funny.
Even though Frances brings with her a certain bohemian appeal, she is often too blunt for her own good and says things to her supposed friends that, in the real world, would get her slapped or forever banished from their social circle. Baumbach's ace in the hole as it were is Gerwig herself, who plays it all so goofy, upbeat and carefree, it becomes almost impossible to stay mad at her for too long.
Perhaps in a nod to Allen's "Manhattan," Baumbach shot the film in black and white, and while that is admirable and artistically daring, it doesn't serve the material very well and will all but guarantee the only people wanting to see it will be his and Gerwig's die-hard fans. The film also includes references that only New York City residents or those already familiar with the city's art scene will get. It's not exactly snobbish, but it does create an unmistakable air of exclusion.
The film concludes in a manner that will cause many to smile with gushing approval and others to groan. For a film that wanted so desperately to be viewed as edgy and hip, it wraps itself up with a neat bow that would be right at home in any mainstream, major studio release. (IFC)