In films like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, writer/director Noah Baumbach tells challenging stories about the lives of highly educated, highly creative, highly strung New Yorkers. The comparison to Woody Allen is obvious, although Baumbach is more disquieting and depressing. And now, his new reference point is the emerging Lena Dunham (Girls), who's much looser and funnier.
That's what makes Baumbach's leisurely and lighter-hearted new film, Frances Ha, a bit of a disappointment. I enjoyed almost every moment of it, and I believed its often plaintive emotions. But his script is a little too clever, his black-and-white photography more affect than effect. Indie art films can often become polished cliché, and nothing in Frances Ha startled me: I expected more than just a clever rendition of familiar people in familiar situations.
We see what Baumbach is up to in the first scene, and by the end, he's reinforced it over and over. Frances — portrayed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script — is 27 going on sophomoric, and she needs to buck up. She's an aspiring (would-be?) dancer at a small city company — until she isn't any more. She likes to play-fight in the park with her best pal, Sophie, from whom she becomes estranged when Sophie becomes engaged. She stumbles from living situation to living situation, then takes a weekend trip to Paris (more "huh?" than "ha"), and then, maybe, turns a corner.
"I should sleep in my own bed, because I bought it," Frances tells Sophie as they cuddle in the opening scene. In other words, she's a big girl now with a big-girl bed. Much of the rest of her dialogue hammers home this theme. She even says: "I'm so embarrassed, I'm not a real person yet." And later, she says, "I like things that look like mistakes," as if Baumbach is either hedging his own bet or glorifying his own work.
Still, if you're a pretentious pseudo-intellectual, like me, you'll probably enjoy Frances Ha (short for her full last name, because she's incomplete — get it?), although the movie does feel like three episodes of an HBO series, sans nudity and sex. The people are pretty, the dialogue is quick, the movie has many lovely set pieces, and Gerwig is a wry and engaging comic actor bordering on the adorkable. "Take your time," an older woman tells Frances, and she replies, weightily, "I will. I can't help it." Well, yeah, you can. You just don't.