Review: Frances Ha

"My distaste for Frances Ha will be legendary."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Frances Ha is not the worst film of the year. That would be Snitch. However, it is the most obnoxious film so far. I do not need to like a character to enjoy their movie. I hated Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network but he was fascinating. The characters in Frances Ha are not interesting enough to be as annoying as they are, and the film is just sloppy.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) breaks up with her boyfriend because she doesn’t want to move out of her apartment with her BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). But Sophie moves out anyway, and the dance company Frances works for cuts her hours so she can’t afford her own place. She finds a new place with new roommates and tries to figure her life out and just get your sh*t together already, Frances!

It feels like comparing things to “Girls” is already a cliché but Frances Ha invites the comparison, unfavorably. “Girls” is also exploring aimless 20-somethings but I feel Lena Dunham has more understanding of what holds certain people back. Plus, Dunham’s character, Hannah, is at least trying to write. She’s not good at it and she doesn’t follow through, but she has a goal. Frances just waits for the dance company to accept her, and has even fewer prospects should that fall through.

Frances Ha Dance

Frances and Sophie have a lot of schtick that is not cute to begin with, and even less cute when Frances tries to do it to strangers. She play fights with Sophie and then tries to play fight with other people who aren’t into it. She beeps when someone touches her. She admits asking “What do you do?” is a stupid question, and then when the same person asks her what she does she says “What a stupid question” because isn’t that ironic? Seriously, sometimes people just need to grow up. She says “just kidding” when something she says just isn’t funny.

I think Noah Baumbach wants this to be a Woody Allen movie for Generation Me. That’s a flawed premise to begin with because narcissism may be ripe for satire but you better be damn careful you don’t identify with the narcissists. It’s funny I just praised Star Trek Into Darkness for adapting Generation Me to a sci-fi franchise, but that adaptation seemed a more interesting comment, intentional or not, than this exploration of original characters.

Read Fred Topel's interview with Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach.

Characters will respond to all the nonsense banter, but leave any actual points hanging. I think some conversations happen out of order too. Someone says “I don’t know you” in the middle of a conversation, not in a “that’s too personal to tell a stranger” way, in an actual “this should have been established at the beginning of the conversation” way. Frances puts on a front so her friends don’t see how badly she’s doing, but she’s eventually lying about a job, her location and even her home. The point is that dishonesty spirals, even if it’s just self-preservation as opposed to outright deception. It’s really just shtick gone wrong.

Noah Baumbach Frances Ha

Supporting characters talk about who they’re f*cking as a way of identifying themselves to the group. As in, they’re not old friends sharing private moments. It’s, “How would I know you?” “Oh, I’m f*cking that other person you know.” Roommate Lev (Adam Driver) makes a non sequitur announcement about the helmet law. Roommate Benji (Michael Zegan) keeps saying “undatable” which was a “Seinfeld” joke. I bet they didn’t even know that, but he says it enough that it stops being funny, but not quite enough that it becomes funny again.

Benji is a particularly awful character. He would be the worst character in the movie if he were the star, but poor Frances has to carry more screen time so I have to be a bit tougher on her. Benji finally gave in and took money from his stepfather. Wasn’t that humble of him? He uses it to buy Ray-ban glasses. He’s also writing a spec script for Gremlins III which I assume is supposed to be funny because he’s the right age to care about Gremlins but not to know that there’s no way a spec script for a pre-existing property owned by Steven Spielberg is going to go anywhere, not even as a writing sample because he’d get laughed out of any agency. This is the kind of privileged screw-up the filmmakers and actors probably know in real life. Benji is too coddled to ever be forced to actually make something of his life. It just never moves from obnoxious to insightful. I just provided your analysis there. The film doesn’t.

Frances Ha Dancing

Maybe you’re not supposed to judge your characters. That’s a valid point, but I think the film is judging them, only it’s judging them positively. It’s celebrating them, and I prefer to see characters held accountable. Not exclusively, I’m sure we can think of an example of a great antihero, but all this is to try to explain why I hate the world of this movie.

The film does not in any way look like someone’s sixth feature. Yes, it’s a more low rent style than Greenberg or even Margot at the Wedding but it looks very first time indie/student film. The black and white footage is always underlit so it looks too dark and just ugly. I know for a fact the digital screening room I saw the film in is top notch so it was not a projection issue. The editing is staccato at best, assuming it was on purpose, but even so, it’s abrasively arhythmic. This is some bad montage, people. Cutting a scene after two lines of dialogue, a dramatic insert of eating ice cream, a two second shot of a movie theater box office but then she didn’t even go to the movie. Whoa, how unstructured, just like real life, man. A provocative choice, possibly, but it did indeed put me off. I was trying to look at that shot you just cut away from, dude.

Frances Ha was a brutally long, plodding 80 minutes (before credits roll). I like Noah Baumbach films. I love The Squid and the Whale and really liked Greenberg, so it’s not an auteur issue. I don’t love them all though, but hey, at least Frances Ha was memorable. I didn’t just dislike it and forget about it. My distaste for Frances Ha will be legendary.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.