Published on November 24th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant2
I first laid eyes on Greta Gerwig in 2008 in the excellent mumblecore film Baghead. She was a cute, though average looking blond that was bursting with presence. ‘She could be a big star,’ I said to myself. She had natural ease on camera and kooky charisma. Time marched on and she made more films under the radar, eventually doing a turn in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, which got her some notice. ‘Finally,’ I said. ‘She’ll get some bigger roles and she can really exploit that talent she has.’ Then suddenly, she was in Hollywood shitcom No Strings Attached and the inferior remake of Arthur. ‘Stop coveting my actress!’ I shouted to no one, which really made my wife think I had lost it. ‘I saw her first!’ It’s funny how one can take ownership of an actor, director, or film (or band or album, for that matter) before they become famous. This is where the hipster, “I liked it before it was mainstream,” insult comes from. Anyway, thankfully for Greta Gerwig and myself, she has also turned up in the Woody Allen film To Rome With Love, and a recent film that has Woody Allen hardcoded into its DNA — Frances Ha.
In Frances Ha, which Gerwig co-wrote with her boyfriend and director Baumbach, she plays the title character (actually, Frances Halladay), an “undateable,” couch crashing, wannabe dancer, and NYC hipster. As a character, she’s made to be loveably full of foibles, though you’d probably want to kill her in real life. She’s one of those people that wants to live the artistic life, without doing the actual thing that would make her an artist. For example, she claims she’s a dancer, but has neither the talent, nor the drive to actually be a dancer. Yet, she’ll drop this fact at parties to make herself feel less inferior to those around her. But for all this, she knows she’s missing something, that she’s still got some things to figure out — and at 27, the clock is ticking. Even her best friend, the platonic romance of the film, begins to leave her behind to live a more adult life.
There are a lot of comparisons one could make with this movie. Shot in stunning black and white, and short on actual plot, it’s an obvious nod to French New Wave films of the 60s, and even more so, to Woody Allen, specifically, Annie Hall and Manhattan. You could compare it to the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’ films of Whit Stillman or call it a less gutsy version of Lena Dunham’s Girls (it even features that weird, skinny hipster dude with the big nose, Adam Driver, also from Girls). None of these comparisons hang about the film’s neck like an albatross though. Baumbach skillfully pays homage to his influences, without beating a dead horse. It doesn’t feel like it was glued together just so he could make an ‘important New York black and white film.’ Frances Ha succeeds in its own right as the sum of its parts.
While not everything in the film works, there are some hilarious moments, and some excellent examples of strong screenwriting. One of them is lifted right from Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, Allen’s character (Alvy) takes Diane Keaton’s character to a lake house, where they try cook lobster together. It turns into a funny, goofy moment that shows the lighter side of their relationship. Later in the film, Alvy tries to recreate this moment with another woman, and he comes off as sadly pathetic. It’s an incredibly clever and revealing plant and payoff. Frances Ha has the same scene; at the start of the film, she and her best friend play fight in the park, something they do for fun. Later on in the movie, she tries to play fight with another woman she is trying to bond with, which weirds the other character out. Talent borrows, and genius steals, and Baumbach uses these tools to craft strong character moments.
All in all, while I really enjoyed it a lot, there’s probably some overhype at work with this film. There were things that didn’t work about it, but for the most part, it’s a win. Though Frances has her trials and tribulations (or, first world problems, as it were), it’s a noticeably happier movie than most of Baumbach’s other work. Both in Baumbach and Gerwig’s writing, as well as Gerwig’s performance, they imbibe the character with enough likeable charm and whimsy to rise above any real negative criticisms or the abundance of NYC 20-something navel-gazing. And I will share Greta Gerwig with the world, as long as she’s able to succeed with more thoughtful movies like this one, and less movies with the Ashton Kutchers of the world.