Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach) stars–yet-again–as a young Manhattan woman in her late 20s who is used to sailing thru life but suddenly finds herself in choppy water. Alas, we found it all a bit too self-conscious (with B&W visuals referencing Woody Allen & George Delerue music borrowed from Francois Truffaut). Has Baumbach grown desperate in his quest for Oscar validation? (JLH: 3/5) Click HERE for our FF2 haiku.
Last year, my husband Rich and I saw a sweet little film called Lola Versus. Written by Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein (who also directed), Lola Versus is about a young Manhattan woman in her late 20s who is used to sailing thru life but suddenly finds herself in choppy water.
Greta Gerwig stars as “Lola” and Zoe Lister Jones plays her longtime BFF “Alice.” When the film begins, Lola has a hunky boyfriend. He is an artist, and they live in his very trendy loft. Lola also has loving parents, and they own a restaurant. Lola is finishing a Ph.D. in Literature, but whenever she needs a little cash, she puts on an apron and covers a few shifts.
Nothing in Lola Versus will ever set the world on fire, but it’s a sincere attempt to portray someone in transition, and we both thought Greta Gerwig was adorable and everyone else in the cast held their own. But most of our film critic colleagues did not agree. Lola Versus has a 34% score on Rotten Tomatoes (meaning “rotten”)… Splat!
Oh what a difference one year makes: Greta Gerwig has just opened in a new film called Frances Ha, in which she plays… well… a young Manhattan woman in her late 20s who is used to sailing thru life but suddenly finds herself in choppy water. And yet, trumpets are now blaring (on IndieWire, in Filmmaker magazine, etc), and Frances Ha is being promoted far and wide as the Indie event of Spring ’13!
It can’t be because of the plot because the two plots follow almost identical trajectories, although this time Gerwig plays an apprentice in a modern dance company instead of an aspiring academic. (Note that, to our eyes, this was ludicrous from the start because Gerwig is way too big and clumsy. In fact, both films have another common element: a scene of Gerwig tripping and falling hard onto well-trod urban pavement.)
The main difference is that Lola Versus was directed by Daryl Wein (a relative nobody) whereas Frances Ha was directed by Noah Baumbach (someone who has already amassed numerous critics awards as well as an Oscar nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category). In Frances Ha, Baumbach stretches his arms out as far as he possibly can, hoping to finally grab hold of the brass ring. He shoots his Manhattan streets in black and white (just like Woody Allen did in, um, Manhattan), and he shameslessly peppers his soundtrack with snippets from French composer George Delerue (who once created soundtracks for Francois Truffaut films like Jules & Jim and Love on the Run).
Ironically Frances Ha actually does have an interesting story to tell, but Baumbach is so wrapped up in technique that it barely gets told. My guess is that Gerwig (who has her own screenplay credit this time) did a lot of writing, and then Baumbach did a lot of erasing. The first time I saw Frances Ha, critical plot points flew right by me and I was genuinely baffled by the ending. So I saw Frances Ha a second time, and sure enough the clues are all there, spread out like bread crumbs in the forest, but don’t blink or you might miss them too.
Just like in Lola Versus, Greta Gerwig is adorable and everyone else in the cast holds their own. Nevertheless, Frances Ha does contain two terrific performances, one major and one minor. Mickey Sumner plays “Sophie,” the BFF, and Charlotte d’Amboise plays “Colleen,” the mentor.
I couldn’t recall ever having seen Mickey Sumner before, so as soon as I got home, I looked her up on IMDb. What a surprise: Sumner is blonde, she’s English, and she’s the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler! I thought she did a really good job as Sophie, but now I think she did a great job. Sumner managed to fly below my Jewdar, and I was totally blindsided. Sophie is the truth-teller, so it’s a difficult part and she handles it perfectly. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
On the other hand, I recognized Charlotte d’Amboise immediately. She actually is a dancer, someone best-known to film lovers from the documentary Every Little Step (in which she auditions for the part of “Cassie” in a revival of A Chorus Line). So she has the body of a dancer (which, as I’ve already said, Greta Gerwig does not), and this gives her added credibility in a small but critical role.
But honestly folks, if I were Zoe Lister Jones (who wrote the Lola Versus screenplay with Daryl Wein), I think I’d be more than a little pissed right now…
5/20/13 UPDATE: Spoiler Alert! Please do not read until after you have seen Frances Ha.
OK, folks, so now it’s Monday and Frances Ha has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes (meaning very “fresh” indeed). But here’s my problem, as I scroll through various reviews (especially reviews by my male colleagues), I see a complete misunderstanding of critical plot points.
Take this comment by A.O. Scott (aka Tony) in the New York Times: “Frances and Sophie, who live together at the start of the movie, are more than best friends… Then Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, Patch, who becomes her fiancé and takes her to Tokyo.” As Tony sees it: “Sophie in effect chooses a man over Frances.”
In fact, Sophie leaves Brooklyn to move to Tribecca where she plans to share “a dream apartment” with another GalPal. Sophie doesn’t move in with Patch until he gets the sudden transfer to Tokyo. And Frances doesn’t know about any of this until months later when Sophie’s name comes up at a dinner party. That’s how estranged Frances and Sophie are by the time of Sophie’s engagement!
Normally, I would pounce on an error like this and castigate my male colleague for his failure to pay sufficient attention to the lives of the film’s female characters, but in this case I blame Baumbach for choosing style over substance. And yet he obviously knows his target market (93% Fresh!), so why should Noah Baumbach care about complaints from a Feminist critic like me 🙁
Photos: Greta Gerwig stars as “Frances” and Mickey Sumner plays her BFF “Sophie.” FYI, Gerwig is the one with the light hair and the updo.
Photo Credits: IFC Films.