‘Frances Ha’… the only laugh is in the title6/12/2013
Time passes by for everyone. No matter how much we’d like to think we can wrangle it, there never seems to be enough. The only occasion where time is in abundance is when it seems it can’t pass by quick enough. It slows for office meetings, for example, while a party with friends passes in a blur; it halts at bad moments yet picks up when things are starting to look up. In the eternal challenge of making the most with time given, it seems the only thing that renders time inconsequential are relationships — both good and bad.
Speaking of time wasted, Noah Baumbach’s new film “Frances Ha,” features Greta Gerwig as the title character who is maneuvering through her late twenties with the help of her BFF Sophie (Mickey Summer) and a host of new and old acquaintances. Frances and Sophie have been friends since college (“We’re the same people except for [hair color]”) and have presumably been living together in New York since then. Frances remarks that the local coffee shop people are correct in saying they’re like an old lesbian couple that no longer has sex.
But that’s just a cheeky metaphor, because the film opens up with Frances’ boyfriend suggesting the two of them move in together. Taken aback by the offer, Frances resists, saying that she doesn’t want to abandon Sophie since they had planned on renewing their lease. (Maybe the metaphor was more insightful than first thought.) The rejection leads to a break-up, and Frances’ first and most important conflict: Frances cannot be alone. Through the entire film she seems to be desperately reaching for any relationship she can, often times attempting to act like lifelong friends with people she has only just met. These advances are often met with confusion and disdain from others who can’t seem to grasp Frances’ quirks.
Unfortunately for Baumbach, this bomb’s been touted by many critics as a wonderful exercise in independent cinema. Shot entirely in black and white, “Frances Ha” is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” including Gerwig’s attempts at her own version of Diane Keaton’s charm. But comparably, it falls short, as Frances’ fumblings become more irritating than humorous. A dinner scene where she attempts to explain the social magic of connecting with someone from across a room comes off as mere stoner-speak. Her character is awkward and un-relatable, but for those who find Frances endearing, there’s no doubt you’ll be rooting for her to turn her life around. The rest of us are cast to the absurd corner of, “I just don’t care.”
Though “Fraces Ha” possesses everything a clever indie film could possibly need for success, there’s just something that doesn’t seem to work with this film, and it’s difficult to define. The hipster-esque side characters of Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) are well cast as the guys who can talk the talk but are never seen walking the skinny jeans walk. They offer job tips for Frances and discuss newly written screenplays, yet nothing comes to fruition. The conversations are interesting and, at times, grueling, but they do little to advance the story or its characters. More of that aforementioned wasted time.
By the time things begin to fall into place in the story and characters become more believable, an appreciation for the people who support Frances might draw audiences in enough that they find themselves rooting for Frances, too, by default. But the introduction of these characters is never fully explained — a rampant flaw throughout the plot that likely will leave audiences feeling dimwitted for not getting it. It’s not complicated, though. It’s just that the jokes aren’t funny. Unfortunately the biggest laugh this film will elicit is from simply stating the title, “Frances Ha.” CV
‘Frances Ha’ opens at Varsity Theatre in Des Moines this Friday and runs from June 14-20.
David Rowley is an Iowa native with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and a master’s in film journalism from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. This cinefile/journalist/gumshoe is always prepared with a pen in his pocket feverishly searching for that “perfect level of ridiculous that makes the absurd desirable.”