Silver Screen: Frances Ha ****1/2
Frances Ha, the latest from talented writer/director Noah Baumbach, would be a deft, charming comedy in any month of the year, but in the thick of June it's hard not to view it as sweet respite from the annual deluge of summer stupidity.
Baumbach's debut is surely in the top-ten best first movies ever made. Kicking and Screaming--- the loquacious examination of post-collegiate angst, not the Will Ferrell soccer thing--- is one of those rare comedies that becomes even funnier with repeat viewings. It's scrappy and endlessly quotable, nearly as well mannered as a Whit Stillman movie but knee-slap-and-spit-take funny thanks to a great script and turns from underrated character actors like Chris Eigeman and Carlos Jacott.
After following that up with the decent throwaway rom-com Mister Jealousy, Baumbach moved into heavier fare with the fantastic drama The Squid and the Whale and dour dramedies like Margo at the Wedding. Frances Ha feels like something of a return to form, but augmented by his more mature facility with dramatic storytelling. It's a spry comedy that teeters on the verge of melancholy, and, like a great magic trick, takes shape just as it seems to be falling apart.
Baumbach is vocal about his creative debts to Woody Allen, and for the first third of the movie, Frances Ha plays like a modern-day hybrid of Annie Hall and Manhattan--- a hipster Annie Hall would not be an unfair description. Greta Gerwig is in perfect spiritual synchronicity with Diane Keaton; both are unconventional beauties whose undeniable femininity is shot through with masculine traits, and both Annie and Frances are both whimsical to a fault. Like Manhattan, Baumbach's latest is a black and white ode to New York City, but whereas Allen uses wide shots to capture the splendor and sprawl of the city's commercial and architectural center, Frances Ha is a movie of neighborhoods. His characters live in the outer boroughs, where the tallest buildings are seven or eight stories, not seventy or eighty, and their exploits are chronicled on handheld digital cameras.
Frances (Gerwig) is a modern dancer whose career and bohemian-chic lifestyle are starting to seem much less sustainable as she nears thirty. Her codependent best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) gets a boyfriend and moves out of their apartment, setting Frances adrift. Frances takes residence in a series of temporary apartments, one with two cool-guy roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen). Baumbach charts her progress, or lack thereof, by framing each chapter by her current street address, and her living situation grows increasingly desperate.
Baumbach could almost certainly have gotten away with coasting on his credible Woody Allen impression. Hipster Annie Hall would probably have sold a few tickets, and even have been pretty good. But he makes the movie distinctively his own by breaking out of the early established rhythms, taking both Frances and the audience from their comfort zones. Frances goes on a series of aimless and varyingly successful journeys, home to suburban California, briefly to Paris, then upstate to her alma mater. Here the movie, like Frances, seems to get lost: What is she doing in these alien places, and where could this possibly be headed? It's an ace move, mirroring the form and the content, and here when the film seems to be coming apart it actually takes shape--- will both Baumbach and Frances be able to find any kind of meaning out of this?
Though Frances Ha is decidedly a Baumbach production, the input of cowriter Gerwig is not to be minimized. She's cowritten movies before, most notably a pair of mumblecore movies with SIU alum Joe Swanberg, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. She lends naturalism to Baumbach's sharp but tending-toward-clever dialogue, and the movie benefits from the looseness.
Gerwig's most significant contribution is as a performer. She's a unique presence, modern but also timeless. It seems equally easy to imagine her trading quips as a sassy gal Friday in a 1950s screwball romp, agitating in the naturalistic satires of the 1970s, or asserting herself in the working-girl comedies of the 1980s.
Modern dance is a perfect and perfectly improbable profession for her character. Gerwig is on the taller side, with broad shoulders and wider hips than the other dancers. She stands out like a giant among their tiny, birdlike frames, and yet she possesses a surprising grace and agility that makes her stand out in all the right ways. The dancing plays to her strengths as a kinetic actress given to sudden, decisive motions. She eats like no other actress onscreen; in The House of the Devil she demolished a sandwich and fries, sucking the salt off her fingers like a satiated emperor, and here again she dives into her food, wolfing down a bagel sandwich and later the fare at an awkward dinner party. It's a perfect example of her strange ability to turn conventionally unfeminine behavior to her advantage and, through some kind of performative alchemy, actually make it highlight the delicate aspects of her beauty. It all seems so casual and offhand. Paired with Baumbach's sensibilities, it makes for one of the year's most beguiling movies.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.