Film review: FRANCES HA, from Built For Speed

Imagine Bridget Jones’s Diary and Zooey Deschanel’s TV show New Girl filtered through the mind of Woody Allen and you would have ultra-quirky, 20-something comedy Frances Ha.

Greta Gerwig plays the ditzy, flaky title character, a 27-year-old woman who floats through her quasi-hipster life in New York City hoping to make it as a professional dancer. With almost no money or regular employment, the only stable aspect of her life is her friendship with acerbic housemate Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  When Sophie’s relationship with an annoying yuppie named Patch (Patrick Heusinger) causes her and Frances to drift apart, Frances’ life spirals further into disarray.

Frances Ha is cute and amiable but despite numerous promising comic set-ups, it’s just not very funny. Co-writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (who also directed) provide a smattering of laughs vai France’s unconventional behaviour and some reasonably astute observations about the quirks and pretensions of today’s self-absorbed 20-somethings but there’s little genuine wit.

The film doesn’t entirely work as drama either as it’s just too fluffy to hit the audience on an emotional level.  Frances’ predicament almost takes a serious turn as her relationships and aspirations begin to unravel but the film treats these issues in superficial manner often undercutting the drama with quirkiness. This film’s lack of dramatic spark is particularly disappointing given Baumbach’s searing writing in Greenberg which featured a wonderfully cynical Ben Stiller as the deeply troubled title character.

Aesthetically, Frances Ha mixes the black and white cinematography, New York locations and free-flowing dinner party conversations of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with a raw, naturalistic style that some have compared to the films of the French new wave directors such as Francois Truffaut but more closely resembles Kevin Smith’s Clerks.  Simply referencing other films is not enough, however, as Frances Ha has neither Manhattan’s insightful wit nor Clerks (let alone the Truffaut’s) ballsy, zeitgeist-defining attitude.

As Frances, Gerwig, who is rarely off-screen, delivers an uneven performance that’s shifts back and forth from natural and endearing to forced and irritating.  This makes it hard to get a fix on Frances and by the film’s end it’s still not clear exactly who she is or if we should care about her. Perhaps young women will identify with and find something profound and moving in Frances’ struggles but to this reviewer, Frances just seemed to be a vague but likeable klutz.   Her group of friends, though, particularly the males, were not likeable as they tended to be annoyingly smug and not in an ironically funny way.  Sure, there are many people like this in real life but watching a gaggle of them on screen becomes nauseating.

For all its pitfalls Frances Ha still has an appealing energy due in no small part to its bouncy and surprisingly retro soundtrack which features David Bowie, T-Rex and Hot Chocolate.

Frances Ha is so close to being a clever and perceptive Woody Allen-esque comedy/ drama that it’s infuriating to see it just fall short.

Nick’s rating: Two and a half stars.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Noah Baumbach.

Release date: 15th Aug 2013

Running time: 86 mins.

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