It always bothered me that all of the characters on Friends were living this glamorous Manhattan lifestyle when they had such crappy jobs. Frances Ha doesn’t sugarcoat how expensive and how hard it is to live in New York. The scene where Frances’ credit card gets rejected made my heart sing. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is clearly not in life’s fast lane and we see hipster Brooklyn / yuppie Manhattan from her perspective, yea for normal people! We all love to hate hipsters (I’m looking at you, Austin) but as Frances’ circle of friends and acquaintances expands, Frances goes from looking like a quirky outsider to potentially needing an intervention. As she goes from one bad break to the next, Frances accelerates the downward spiral by making each bad situation far worse. It’s not cute or endearing – it’s kind of scary and pathetic. The film eventually reaches an inflection point, is this a quirky character beats the odds kind of movie or a lovable character hits bottom movie?
Director Noah Baumbach has made those awkward in-between stages of life something of a specialty (think of John Hughes but as with dramas not comedies). In fact, for a film with such a thin plot, which focuses almost exclusively on one character, it paints a very detailed portrait very quickly. Filming in black and white on the busy city streets gives the film a blurry, fast feel.
When a movie’s title has the main character’s name, you can bet that you will be spending a lot of time with them; Frances Ha is no exception. Greta Gerwig is in literally every scene of the movie. Frances is a newly single, struggling (and not very graceful) dancer. Her best friend and flat-mate recently moved to a new apartment in fashionable Tribeca and got engaged. Frances’ life is upended. Although Gerwig’s does a great job of conveying a lot of information in these quotidian scenes, there is something missing. For someone circling the drain, she seems delusionally too comfortable in her own skin. It is easy to be of two minds about Frances, but the rest of the cast is made up of unsympathetic (even by New York standards) characters. When Frances turns the corner from being Bridget Jones and becomes self destructive, the audience is left with no one to root for.
Frances Ha ends on an upbeat note, without exactly having a happy ending. Baumbaugh resists the temptation of going for a cheap rescue ending that allow us to assume that her change in fortune means that she is a better person for her struggle. Baumbach stays on message and within reality, making Frances Ha the anti-Bridget Jones. When Frances hits bottom with style, ordinary events once again conspire to sap what should have been a cool episode into something completely unsatisfying and wasted.
So is Frances Ha worth it? While the film’s realism is a nice change of pace, ultimately there isn’t a lot of “there” there. Even as a date movie, I’m not sure there is much to talk about over drinks afterwards. In life it really is about the little things; at the movies, there is such a thing as too little.