Friday, May 17, 2013

A little too much of a good thing: Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA

As are so many of us independent-film (including mumblecore) movie-watchers, TrustMovies has been a big Greta Gerwig fan, almost from the time he first saw her work seven years ago in LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Since then, it's been nothing but up, with the high point being, in his estimation, Alison Bagnall's The Dish and the Spoon (2011), in which Ms Gerwig does just about everything: makes us laugh, cry, think, feel, the works -- in a story that succeeds on all levels, surprising us, even as it moves and entertains. Do view this one, if you haven't already. (Ms Gerwig also graced Whit Stillman's latest delight, Damsels in Distress, which you undoubtedly did see.)

In 2010 Gerwig worked with writer/director Noah Baumbach, shown at left, in his most commercial movie yet, Greenberg. The two are now a couple and Baumbach is back, directing her again in his latest film, FRANCES HA, on which Gerwig, shown below, also has co-screenplay credit.

His leading lady possesses, as ever, her own distinct personality, which she has proven able to employ in the service of various directors and roles, while maintaining that special Gerwigian spark and style. There are times, in fact, when she may remind you of a less adorable and mainstream but rather more intelligent and independent Goldie Hawn. Consistently quirky, she always manages to keep that quirk within the bounds of reality.

Initially, the new Baumbach/Gerwig endeavor looks a marriage made in heaven. The actress gets to use her fabled moves (half clunky, half charming) and her stop-start vocal pattern at the behest of some bizarre dialog that maybe only she could make work (she does).

Her character, Frances, is a young woman approaching middle age with not much to show for it. She's an almost dancer/almost choreographer, with an almost-best female friend and a bunch of male almost-relationships that go nowhere. The woman doesn't even have her own permanent place to live. And yet she perseveres with a kind of attitude that you might, on a very good day, call hopeful.

As it bubbles and bumbles along, the movie begins to seem like a fairy tale about either a completely deluded young woman with almost no social skills or an equally deluded director gone bonkers over his leading lady. For a time all this works nicely, with the occasional terrific line that makes you grin and chuckle ("You smoke inside?!") and events that continually turn darker and give Gerwig the chance to hunker down and rise up.

The movie will delight Brooklynites (it's so place-specific); it's filmed in that new mode-of-choice, black-and-white; and it gives a couple of other actresses -- Mickey Sumner (above, left) and Grace Gummer (below, right) -- the chance to shine.

When our heroine, with no money to pay for anything, uses a new credit card to take a weekend trip to Paris by herself, with no prior planning, the result is staggeringly stupid. While Baumbach cap-tures the utter loneliness of being in a foreign country all by one-self, he also hammers the biggest nail of all in Frances Ha's coffin.

Eventually, all this becomes too much of a good thing, for Gerwig's pluckiness is no match for Baumbach's punishment. When your main character appears headed irreversibly down the pathway to institutionalization, it's time to reassess. Spoiler ahead: The filmmakers (I'm including Gerwig here, as she co-wrote) do this by plastering on one of the easiest but least believable (given all that's come before) happy endings in movie history. Yes, we all want to see our heroines succeed -- but come on!

There is, however, one final, very dry and delightful visual joke regarding the movie's title that any urban apartment dweller will understand and appreciate. Frances Ha -- from IFC Films and running 86 minutes -- opens today, Friday, May 17, in Manhattan at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles at The Landmark, with, I expect, a limited nationwide rollout to follow.

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