Sometimes timing is everything. Take "Frances Ha," the funny/sad comedy that stars Gina Gerwig as a twenty-something artist trying to make it in New York that chronicles her relationships, her lack of direction and her economic woes over the span of a year. Sound familiar? Okay, I won't mention Lena Dunham's name, but for much of the time, Noah Baumbach's latest feels like a black-and-white "Girls"-come lately.
Is that so bad? It is certainly a step up from Gerwig's previous take on being a confused twenty-something in New York (last year's "Lola Versus"), but the film, with a script by Baumbach and Gerwig, lacks the ironic insight and gritty reality that Dunham brings to her hit HBO series or brought to her 2009 indie "Tiny Furniture."
Despite its striking look (the luminous black and white cinematography is by Sam Levy), "Frances Ha" is a picaresque coming-of-age story that echoes the memes of Dunham's series, but without the resonance. What holds it together is Gerwig's layered, vulnerable performance. While her social awkwardness is often annoying, Gerwig imbues her with a naïve spunk that makes her oddly appealing.
Frances lives in Brooklyn with her college roommate Sophie, whom she refers to as being "the same person" as she is; though all they share is naïve ambition that they’re going to take the city by storm. Now 27, they are beginning to drift apart, and it isn’t long before their relationship is on the skids.
Sophie works at a publishing house and has a boyfriend on the Wall Street fast track to success; Frances is an apprentice with a struggling dance company and can’t commit when her boyfriend asks her to move in with him.
Frances describes her relationship with Sophie as being like a pair of old lesbians without sex, so she’s thrown off guard when Sophie announces she’s moving to SoHo to live with a less messy roommate. On the rebound, Francis moves in with a pair of not-so-struggling artists (a sculptor and a writer supported by their parents). That one is played by Adam Driver, who is best-known for playing Dunham’s ex- on "Girls," only underscores the film’s relationship with that series.
As with much of what happens to Frances, the arrangement doesn’t work out. She can no longer make the rent because she’s dropped from the dance company she had hoped would hire her. It isn’t long before she’s bunking with a not-all-that welcoming associate from the dance company; and running off to Paris on a weekend lark (with the help of a fresh credit card) when an apartment there is casually offered her to stay in at a dinner party.
The tone, which up to this point has been close to a sit-com (say like "The New Girl"), becomes darker and more socially aware as Frances clumsily makes her way alone. Frances is out of her league with those other guests at the dinner table, and the scene plays like something out of one of Woody Allen’s rueful comedies.
Just as "Girls" got cred for being upfront about the struggles and self-absorption of its set of Millennials, so does "Frances Ha," which never flinches from being a narrative driven as much by Frances’s financial struggles as her personal ones. In one telling scene, she attempts to explain to Benji (Michael Zegen), a writer supported by his stepfather, that she’s really poor, but he dismisses her with a shrug, as if Frances is wealthy by association.
She’s not, which makes her something like the lead character from Whit Stillman’s "Metropolitan" -- an outsider amongst her wealthy peers. Stillman’s "The Last Days of Disco" also comes to mind in his depiction of making the transition from college to adulthood. Also, there are times when Gerwig appears to be channeling the Chloe Sevigny character from that film; she could even pass as Sevigny’s younger sister.
The tart dialogue also reflects Stillman’s style, which captures the vernacular of the educated, privileged urbanites. Best of all, Gerwig and Baumbach populate the story with a sharply observed set of self-absorbed characters, none of whom wear out their welcome, despite their sometimes irritating natures.
What doesn’t resonate is to believe Gerwig as a dancer -- a profession chosen for it seems no other reason, but to allow the story to climax with a dance piece that reflects the film’s narrative -- ending the film on a lighter, hopeful note. Though welcome, this mood swing in the final fifteen minutes is too pat to be believable. Does Frances become self-aware overnight? That’s how it seems.
This style of filmmaking -- the urban social comedy -- has long been the province of Allen, and the film’s monochromatic look brings to mind his great "Manhattan," but this film is smaller in scope and more precious. Its best moments show how awkward, funny and scary starting out in a big city can be; its worst exhibit the kind of sentimentality that made "Sex and the City" so synthetic.
Just what is the connection between Francis and Sophie? It’s a given that they’re close, but you never fully understand why Frances has such long-standing affection for the self-serving Sophie, played as an abrasive caricature by Mickey Sumner.
But what’s most difficult is not seeing the film through the lens of "Girls." "Frances Ha" plays like a spunky pilot to a cable series that will never be produced. It’s perfectly fine for what it is; and Gerwig is a quirky, funny and quite striking presence, especially in black-and-white. Still, why head out to the movies to see a story that’s better told on the small screen?