Thursday, September 19, 2013

I'm way behind #5: Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

This light, charming, black-and-white homage to the French New Wave films of the 1960s opens with a scene that made me immediately hostile to the film and its characters, even as I admired the shot composition and B&W cinematography. I braced myself for a grating, irritating 90 minutes, but I should have known better. I'm a fan of the three previous films I've seen by Frances Ha writer/director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell little league soccer movie), The Squid and the Whale, and Greenberg) and the two Wes Anderson films he cowrote (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox), so I should have trusted his instincts. That "asshole" (according to the world's most insane film critic, Armond White) Baumbach took me from hating this movie to really liking it within 20 minutes. What sorcery is this?
To be fair, my initial hatred of the film may stem from my premature fogeyism and aversion to the stereotypical Williamsburg (or at least, the media-created fairytale version of "Williamsburg") hipster and all local and regional versions of this partially fabricated beast. The film opens with Frances (Greta Gerwig, also the film's cowriter) and her BFF and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, fruit of the loins of the artist we all know and love as lute-playing boner-killer Sting) sharing Frances' bed as they peruse the Internet on a laptop and engage in too-clever banter these young women seem to have absorbed like water from the comments sections of Gawker, the AV Club, and Brooklyn Vegan. It's a more naturalistic but just as annoying post-collegiate version of Diablo Cody's Juno irritations. Good work on nailing the way these people talk, Baumbach and Gerwig, but why would I want to spend a movie with them?
Here's why. We've seen far too many movies about aimless, inarticulate young people wandering through bohemian urban milieus, but they've all been men (or man-boys really), their childish aimlessness is romanticized, and they are usually saved by a patient, kind woman who's got her shit together but wants to help because of aimless boy's sexily hip charisma. This time, the aimless slacker is a woman, her lack of motivation and direction is seen as a negative and is a constant source of anxiety for her, and the movie is about her growing up and pulling her own shit together. Also, she's actually likable when she's being herself. Baumbach and Gerwig have fun making fun of the hipster man-children whose parents pay for their spacious New York apartments and who Gerwig has to crash with after her BFF and roommate moves into a nicer place with a different roommate. There's some very funny stuff here about the cultural differences between the aimless-by-choice trust-fund early twentysomethings and the employed yet aimless-by-circumstance Frances, who is approaching thirty and is seen by these guys as some hilarious, hapless eccentric from an earlier generation.
Baumbach and Gerwig mildly and comedically subvert expectations for this type of story. I like how Sophie is a picture postcard Williamsburg hipster archetype, but her boyfriend is a fratty jock who works in business. He's also a nice, likable guy but is a little bit scared of her and does what she says. I've seen this kind of relationship in life but never in a movie before, this coldly intimidating hipster/kindly dude-bro couple. Also, through a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedic chain of uncomfortable events, Frances flies to Paris by herself for a very brief and very expensive two days, and spends a miserable weekend alone. Boy, I made that sound hilarious. It is, and it's the only time I've ever seen Paris represented on film as a cold, depressing, alienating, average metropolis, where magic does not appear on every corner, and where the atmosphere is unforgiving if you don't know anyone and don't have any plans.
I also like how Baumbach's take on New York in the present evokes moments from the '60s French New Wave films without explicitly referencing them, with the exception of the soundtrack, which features several excerpts from those films' scores. The black and white is gorgeous, and the cast is natural and sharp. The happy ending was too sugarcoated for my tastes, I don't understand friendships like Frances' and Sophie's, and that opening scene still bugs me, but everything else charmed me.  

No comments:

Blog Archive