Woody Allen may be a national treasure, and his movies come and go every summer as regularly as the Perseid meteor shower. But the Woodman's not going to be around forever. With the new comedy Frances Ha, writer and director Noah Baumbach demonstrates the wit, urbanity and cinematic chops to step into Allen's shoes.
In his two-decade career, Baumbach has shown an increasingly sure command of his craft, namely in his intoxicating, relentlessly interesting deployment of dialogue. For Baumbach, screen time is too precious to waste with boring exposition. Instead, the 86 minutes of this story is, from start to finish, a smorgasbord of verbal wit, a beach ball that the actors keep bouncing in the air: from the barbed put-downs ("this apartment is very aware of itself") to flashes of self-excoriating insight to casually delivered but carefully written monologues.
But it's not just the writing that recalls Woody. Shot digitally in black and white—shades of Manhattan—this is a story set among New York artistes, full of banter about wealth and pretension, social climbing and social falling. It's all set to a vibrant score that makes extensive use of Georges Delerue, the great French composer who produced music for such New Wave masterpieces as Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim.
For all its verbal charm, it's the film's star, Greta Gerwig, who keeps the film aloft with her combination of saucer-eyed innocence, sheepish grins and arms-flailing clumsiness. While many of us—or some of us—will be charmed by the performance, it's safe to say that others will find it maddening. But not everyone loved Katherine Hepburn, either.
The film is a world of constant motion and social levitation, but Frances is perpetually on the brink of falling. When we meet her, she's 27 years old and still struggling as an understudy in a modern dance company. She's breaking up with her boyfriend, who correctly suspects that Frances prefers the company of her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her skinny, bespectacled best-friend-forever.
The story is a simple one of growing up: Frances is slow to accept that she doesn't have a future as a dancer, and slow to listen to the encouragement she gets to turn her attention to choreography. Meanwhile, money problems mount, friends make changes in their lives and Frances finds herself sliding backward—most humiliatingly and hilariously when she's reduced to a summer camp job at Vassar College, her alma mater.
The film is New Wave in intent and execution. It's the kind of cinema-besotted valentine to a woman that Godard used to make with Anna Karina, especially A Woman Is a Woman and Band of Outsiders. Woody Allen did something similar with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and there are even echoes of Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run in a single madcap sequence in which Frances races through the city in search of an ATM, so determined is she not to let her rich date pay her tab.
With Baumbach, there's a sense that he himself has agonized over finding a secure niche in the cultural elite. Sometimes the covetousness is obvious, as with the bilious, cathartic Greenberg. (At the end of that film, Ben Stiller's dyspeptic, underachieving title character finds love with a character played by Gerwig.) The world of Frances Ha is an elite, rarified one where being a struggling writer means trying to work up the motivation to decide between writing spec scripts for Saturday Night Live or solving the second act of a rewrite of Gremlins 3. Most people never get close to this world, and one's tolerance for Frances Ha may depend on whether you enjoy peering through a window at a better, wittier place where people have style and panache, and where you can always find a friend with a "little pied-á-terre" in Paris you can borrow.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Giving up childish things."