You can hardly blame Noah Baumbach for wanting to build a cinematic shrine to his girlfriend Greta Gerwig. Not only is she classic movie star charismatic, she’s remarkably mercurial to boot; behind an exterior of vague confusion, she seems capable of anything a script can throw at her, from tragic muse to clownish waif. So Gerwig and Baumbach wrote this movie together, thinly guising it as psychological odyssey in order to put her in glorious black-and-white in every scene. To make it more beyond reproach, they’ve fashioned the film as a complex tribute to kindred auteurs. Clearly modeled on Woody Allen’s Manhattan — with a nice twist — Frances Ha also features tips of the hat to more modern day obsessives like Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham. What you will ultimately remember from all this art, however, is the beautiful and talented Gerwig.
And maybe it was overdue: From mumblecore origins like Baghead to Whit Stillman’s incomparably odd Damsels in Distress, Gerwig has always been a face to watch in an era of amazing female faces. Here she plays a hipster damsel of Brooklyn, careless but progressively losing ground as the film’s long vignettes move her from tight finances and easy friendship to life alone, minus most of her fond expectations. The milieu is the now-officially-overworked turf of fresh-out-of-college kids watching dreams turn into sellout nightmares. (By now, it feels like the only topic young directors can explore.)
But Baumbach can’t quite represent in this era. Even the music he uses, like David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” seems out of date. And maybe it’s just me, but listening to people talk about feeling alienated in New York is just getting tiresome.
On the other hand, the film is beautifully shot and full of sparkling bits of dialogue. But it doesn’t quite feel like a Baumbach film, save for one exception: a giddy, painful dinner party in which Gerwig plays dizzily on the edge of her own self-obsession. Let’s hope Baumbach soon turns his Gerwig obsessions into something more interesting to the rest of us.