'Frances Ha': Purely enjoyable
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
With his new comedy "Frances Ha" director Noah Baumbach has pulled off something pretty special: the movie relates an up-to-the-minute story in an old-school style without seeming anachronistic, affected, precious, or anything. The substantiality of this achievement is slightly obscured, maybe, by the movie's modest scale. So perhaps it's better for the purposes of this review to defer the deep analysis and just state the plain fact that "Frances Ha" is the most purely enjoyable and sweet-tempered movie the exceptionally talented Baumbach has made his nearly two decades as a director.
Shot in a silky-smooth (but not overly digital-looking) black-and-white (part of its old-school style, which owes a bit to what was the French New Wave of the early '60s), "Frances Ha" begins with its sort-of title character, played by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach and also played the female lead in his prior directorial effort "Greenberg," enjoying, in many respects, an extended New York adolescence with her roommate Sophie. Ensconced in post-collegiate bohemian not-quite squalor, Frances and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) go to loud parties, ride the subway buzzed in the wee hours, share the same bed as they anticipate shared hangovers, and talk about boys. The state of suspended adulthood is shattered when Sophie announces a moving-out plan, which Frances sees as a girl-power betrayal to the extent that she doesn't recognize it as a wake-up call until what she took to be a life speedbump is revealed to be more like a tailspin. Bouncing from apartment to apartment, aspiring dancer Frances thinks she knows who she is and what she deserves in life, but whenever she experiences a setback, she can't quite figure out how to get step around it. She has a naïve and insistent belief that she can remake her life merely through a change of venue; hence, she expects miracles out of an impulsive, ridiculous weekend trip to Paris, for example. The non-miracle of that jaunt is one of the movie's comic highlights.
For much of the movie, Frances labors under the misapprehension that her awkwardness makes her more authentic. Another comic highlight of the film is a dinner scene in which Frances' eager volubility is met with bemused skepticism by an affluent older couple (played, in a witty bit of casting, by the musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips). After being brought sufficiently low that she winds up waitressing at her old school, Frances starts to readjust her ambitions and expectations to fit the world she actually lives in.
The character does a lot of things that on paper might drive a judgmental adult viewer up a wall, but Frances is viewed affectionately throughout, and this comes across in large part due to Gerwig's performance, which doles out charm in doses that are never cloying. Critics have called this movie director Baumbach's valentine to Gerwig--the pair are a couple offscreen--and while the actress does seem bathed in a protective glow throughout, such a description short-changes Gerwig's creative agency in the movie, as she's also a co-writer. The script does have the tang of the lived experience of the young urban aspirant, but for all the frank talk of sex and money in this movie, the relations depicted within it aren't so fueled by hostility as they are on the HBO series "Girls," with which this movie shares some definite thematic affinities. Indeed, its lack of abrasive surfaces of any sorts is something that's new to Baumbach's body of work; watching "Frances Ha" for the first time I had a palpable sense of surprise that it literally contained nothing that seemed calculated to tick me off, and I almost missed it. But not too much. Which is to say that if you've found Baumbach's prior pictures (which also include "Margot At The Wedding" and "The Squid and the Whale") a little off-putting, you ought not let that stop you from seeing this.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.