Wednesday, May 22, 2013

SIFF '13 Review: 'Frances Ha'

Watching his films, you might get the impression that director Noah Baumbach is a dyed in the wool pessimist. While movies like “Greenberg,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and my personal favorite, the underrated “Kicking and Screaming,” have sharp bitter edges, his latest, “Frances Ha,” is his most hopeful, least combative work to date. The fact that this is collaboration with star Greta Gerwig might have something to do with that, and the events are largely autobiographical on her side of the equation.

If a purportedly true-to-life tale about aimless upper middle class twenty-somethings striving to find direction in their lives makes you want to run screaming for the hills, then by all means, avoid “Frances Ha” like a pox-ridden leper. Because that’s exactly what this movie is, and it embodies the inherent positives and negatives in such a scenario. At the core, the story is about friendship, chiefly between Frances (Gerwig) and her college BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and about trying to figure out exactly what the hell you want to do with the limited amount of time you have on this rock.

As a subject, this is an extremely easy topic to relate to. We all have times where we feel directionless, like we’re being pulled along by forces we have no control over, without a goal to work towards. And we’ve all seen friendships dissolve in front of us. Those pieces of the film are very real. When the film focuses on these struggles, the relationships between the characters, is when it is the strongest.

There are, however, a couple of really big problems with the movie. First, as much as we can commiserate, the problems of a couple of mid-twenties white kids finding meaning and purpose after college isn’t all that interesting to watch anymore. It’s difficult to make that story stand out after we’ve heard it so many times, and the way in which Gerwig and Baumbach attempt to do this, lead us directly into my second major gripe with “Frances Ha.”

Much of the film, especially in the early going, is too concerned with bestowing quirks and eccentricities upon each and every last character. For example, Benji (Michael Zegan) collects vintage Ray Bans. They’re proud of themselves for the most minor, pedestrian accomplishments—like asking, but not even receiving, extra shifts and work—and preoccupied with being super self-aware; and say obnoxious things like they’re life is like a sitcom. So much of the script comes across as Gerwig trying to turn real life into a movie script, and it is crushed under the weight of its own self-appointed cleverness. Just because people are bored and self-absorbed and drink too much and smoke too much, doesn’t make them fascinating or remarkable or dramatic. Given the current cinematic landscape, it feels generic, dull, and tired. We get it, Frances, you’re passionate and full of life, but how many scenes of you dancing through the streets of Manhattan do we really need to see?

These attempts to portray their self-aware, irony soaked lives, are obvious attempts to synthesize a Woody Allen sensibility with a French New Wave aesthetic and feed it to a new generation who will be awestruck. “Frances Ha” spends too much time packing in the idiosyncrasies and referencing film history, and not enough time with the people underneath all of these surface concerns. It distracts you from the emotional core of the film and keeps you from really connecting with anyone until it is almost too late. The plot is formless and drifts, much like Frances herself floats from apartment to apartment, as her life gradually starts to suck and then ultimately redeems itself.

It is in this redemption and reconciliation that “Frances Ha” hits a stride and is most engaging. Gerwig has a great charisma on screen, and while everyone is trying so hard—both the actors in their performances and the characters in their lives—to be something they’re not, she’s the only natural one. An aspiring dancer, she breaks down while everyone around her is either living a rich-parent-supported lifestyle, or advancing in their personal and professional lives. Things that used to charm people become awkward and off putting, and her alienated rants and rampant insecurities are what propel you through the movie.

This bouncing back and forth in quality makes “Frances Ha” a frustrating movie to watch. There are so many elements that are like nails on a chalkboard. Most people in this movie are thoroughly unlikable, almost everyone except Frances in fact. Eventually she sheds most of her affectation and you want good things to happen to her. But even though the film pulls it together for a strong finish, the story never amounts to much. Nothing ever feels particularly important, the film is unbearably hip, and you wonder why you’re supposed to care. It’s fine, but isn’t anything special.

Then again, maybe I’m a cranky old asshole who just doesn’t get it anymore. People can’t shut up about “Frances Ha.” The film just played at the Seattle International Film Festival, opened up around the country, and is garnering rave reviews from every corner. Hell, on a per screen basis this earned more money than “Star Trek Into Darkness” over the weekend.

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