Noah Baumbach is the very definition of an inconsistent indie auteur. On the one hand, he’s worked with Wes Anderson, co-writing such favorites as ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.’ He’s also brought his own self-directed efforts to the fore, consistently praised pictures like ‘The Squid and the Whale’ and ‘Kicking and Screaming.’ But Baumback can also be a labored bore, a man more interested in the minutia of his often irritating characters (‘Margo at the Wedding,’ ‘Greenberg’) than finding a greater cinematic truth. He’s a hipster without the necessary genre cred, a navel-gazing celluloid slacker who sees the bigger picture even if his audience’s often can’t.
Luckily, his latest, entitled ‘Frances Ha,’ lands on the right side of his aesthetic. Filmed in brooding black and white and reminiscent of Woody Allen’s equally effective love letter to Manhattan, Baumback lets his star and screenwriting partner Greta Gerwig take center stage as a 27-year-old apprentice dancer who can’t seem to find a clear direction in life. Her roommate and best pal Sophie (Mickey Sumner) is a bit more grounded, but the two of them seem to share an equally arrested post-college adolescence.
In short order, she loses her boyfriend. Then she is fired from her job. Then Sophie announces she will be moving out. Unable to pay for her apartment, Frances starts off on one of those journeys of self-discovery that usually have less pratfalls and slapstick asides than this. Still, Frances continues to try and finally settles in with a couple of trust fund buddies (Adam Driver, Michael Zegan). Along the way, we have stop overs, asides, and vignettes, but nothing seems to fill the void our heroine feels. Maintaining an almost inhuman level of hope, Frances keeps pushing, even if reality keeps pushing back.
‘Frances Ha’ is the kind of film that requires patience. No, not because it will ask you to wait until important plot points have a chance to take shape and settle in. No, not because it offers a swell send-off where the lack of anything important early on takes on greater resonance later. No, ‘Frances Ha’ will mandate a kind of personal tolerance test primarily because of the characters and how they are portrayed. We film critics love to complain that filmmakers don’t take enough time with the people who populate their narratives, but in the case of Baumbach and his cast, a little goes a very, very, very long way. He spends inordinately large amounts of screen space letting quirks and idiosyncrasies rule. He also wastes value moments making pale pop culture references that feel smarmy and self-serving…and several years out of date.
On the other hand, if you hold your nose and simply wallow through the stench of self-aggrandizement, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that will actually tug on your emotions. Gerwig can be a bit less appetizing than the cast of HBO’s ‘Girls,’ but it’s not because we don’t like Frances. On the contrary, she reminds one of the center of Mike Leigh’s jolly ‘Happy-Go-Lucky.’ Certainly more grounded than that film’s effervescent to a fault lead, Frances is still someone who can’t see the common sense forest for the impulsive trees. She instigates her own problems, downplays the potential cons that can arrive with every veiled invitation. But she’s also an optimist in a world where cynicism draws greater import. For that alone, we want to see her succeed, oddball antics and all.
In fact, unlike his other films, Baumbach appears to be lightening up, if just a bit. The use of gorgeous monochrome may remind many of the flashy French New Wave, but it actually recalls the Neo-realism movement that swept through Italy in the decade before. Sure, there are nods to both, but Truffaut and Goddard were trying to trip up the artform, alter it to add both commentary and additional craft to the motion picture paint box. Here, Baumbach is really offering a look back, a chance for all of us to remember what it was like to be adrift in the decade after the American Dream disappeared into a haze of under-employment and mounting student loan debt. Frances’ dream is like all others nowadays: deferred, if without a reason to be completely dismissed as impossible.
There’s another element that will trouble those expecting laughs. While labeled a comedy, ‘Frances Ha’ is far from hilarious. Perhaps if you find mindless references to ‘Gremlins’ or a person’s obsessive love of Ray Bans funny, you’ll be smiling more than anything else. This is especially true of a signature moment in the movie where our awkward, angular lead lumbers through the streets of Brooklyn, wildly cavorting to David Bowie’s iconic “Modern Love.” In that sequence, which offers up a side of Baumbach we rarely see, the film seems to share our growing affection for its star. It suggests something carefree and open about Frances, a who-gives-a-crap contentment that both helps her in life, but also explains why she is so unsettled.
Of course, if this were a typical mainstream Hollywood film, Frances would be saddled with a silly, sitcom level boyfriend who is eventually revealed to be her one true soulmate, the two would realize how completely made for each other they are (perhaps in some equally cliched way, like as part of some last act panic or set-piece) and then they would walk off together, social roles cementing a supposed happily ever after. Thankfully, Baumbach completely shies away from such staleness, offering a heartfelt full circle which seems to complete the sentimental cycle Frances has been flailing through. While he remains a filmmaker of haphazard sensibilities, Noah Baumbach can deliver on occasion. Thankfully, ‘Frances Ha’ is one of those times.