by Dan Cohen, Santa Monica Reporter
Greta Gerwig is a twenty seven year old Brooklynite who struggles to find her identity in “Frances Ha,” a well-received comic essay from Noah Baumbach, the writer/director of “The Squid and the Whale,” and “Greenberg.”
When we first meet Francis Halladay, she’s telling a boyfriend that she can’t live with him because she’s committed to her current roommate, a close friend and classmate from Vassar. But in the next scene, the roommate, Sofie, announces that she’s relocating to a better neighborhood in Manhattan and that Frances will have to find someone else to pick up the rent. Frances then begins a series of haphazard moves that take her from one Brooklyn location to another, then her alma mater, then back to Brooklyn, without her ever seeming to find herself.
Because she insists on announcing every wayward thought that comes into her head, Frances manages to aggravate new friends and old. A modern dancer who can’t seem to move beyond the apprentice stage, she cultivates a dizzy narcissism that frustrates relationships and thwarts opportunities. Men call her “un-dateable” while women are attracted and repulsed by her in equal measure.
The movie alternates between embarrassing social gaffes and lyrical gambols through lushly photographed landscapes in Brooklyn, Manhattan, upstate New York, and, in later passages, Sacramento, California. Pearly, black and white photography is married to classic film scores, mainly by the brilliant French composer, Georges Delerue, in an attempt to underline Frances’ independent spirit.
The movie starts out on sure footing, quickly establishing Frances’ key relationship with Sofie, then with two male roommates who both take an interest in her. But her mouth quickly sabotages their attempts to get close. After the first twenty minutes or so, the movie, like Frances, settles into a series of redundant missteps that make its brief running time feel much longer.
The problem with “Frances Ha,” and its central character, is that writer/director Lena Dunham has told the same story on her bracing HBO series, “Girls,” with vastly more wit, energy and filmmaking skill. Dunham, who plays a similarly floundering twenty-something, creates tension by editing her scenes down to key moments, then moving on. Baumbach, who works the same territory, stays in a situation long after the point is made, then repeats, ad nausea.
As writers, Dunham and Baumbach express similar level of ambivalence to their peers. Both seem to sense that in speaking what they perceive as the untarnished truth to one another, their characters dispense with the basic civility that makes most day to day relationships bearable. Both directors describe a world of cramped apartments and peripheral jobs, where an abrasive form of candor, especially when it comes to sex, becomes the means of defending the little bit of space their characters control. But Dunham has a sharper tongue, a better eye, and the nerve to explore the darker implications of herself and her friends. Baumbach prefers to skitter over the surface, like a water bug.
Where Dunham cuts away the moment her intentions are stated, Baumbach lingers, like he’s so taken with being in a scene that he can’t get out of it. For example: after imposing on a recent acquaintance for shelter, Frances is invited to a small dinner party. The guests are mostly ten years older, successful and well into careers. With a kind of blind determination, she insists on engaging each guest with her willful self-aggrandizing, until the whole room tires of her. The scene is painfully uncomfortable, not for its revelation of character as much as the way it revels in her lack of discretion.
Although I didn’t warm up to it, “Frances” has received overwhelmingly good reviews. Kenneth Turan, in the LA Times called it “effortless and effervescent.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott praised the movie as a “bedtime story for adults,” and cited Greta Gerwig for her “knack for physical comedy.” She has been described in more than one review as “radiant,” and a “contemporary everywoman.”
For the most part, I found it dreary, sad, and diffuse. The details of Frances’ life may be accurate but they failed to engage my sympathy. Several episodes focus on her struggle to find her way as an artist, but much more running time is spent on her frequent humiliations and inability to learn from them.
The use of celebrated themes by Georges Delerue, lifted in their entirety from the early work of Francoise Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, and Phillipe DeBroca, has been cited as an attempt to link “Frances Ha” to the French New Wave. But the music isn’t just quoted; it fills the movie, like original score. Director Baumbach may be in love with these masters, and he has been clever in copping some lovely music, but there’s no comparison between Frances and the characters in “Jules and Jim,” “Shoot the Piano Player,” or “Contempt.” And while the producers may have paid for the rights to Delerue’s haunting music, there’s something truly odious in the way the director has associated them with his shallow, sad-sack Brooklynite and her privileged but scattered acquaintances, most of whom would be on the street were it not for wealthy parents.
In the same way that Baumbach has cribbed from much better movies, he has twice cast Gerwig in the kind of roles Diane Keaton played in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” and “Manhattan.” He’s obviously taken with her, but as an actress, Gerwig can’t fill the young Keaton’s shadow. She flails helplessly through a scene that mimics the fugitive lobster routine in “Annie Hall.” Gerwig seems like an uncomfortable stranger in a family get together where Keaton effortlessly showed affection. And though she’s taken the lead in a dozen small films, Gerwig has yet to express anything close to the depth Keaton reached in Richard Brooks’ “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” or Allen’s “Manhattan.” Her main achievements, thus far, have been to define herself as awkward and detached.
If, in co-writing the script, Baubach and Gerwig had any idea who Frances is at her core, they have shied away from telling us. As written and played, she’s never more than a jumble of warring personal tics. She almost never seems to enjoy herself. Because it’s so relentless her story is pretentious and empty headed at the same time.
“Frances Ha” is now playing in Philadelphia. If it continues to play, expect a local screening.
While studying Polynesian culture in the mid-1940s, the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl discovered carvings that suggested that the islands’ first inhabitants might have been sailors from South America. To prove his theory, Heyerdahl dared to cross the Pacific in 1947, on a primitive, balsa wood raft, despite warnings by about half the planet. His epic voyage became the subject of a huge bestseller, an academy award winning documentary, and now, sixty years later, a satisfying feature film.
In its original Norwegian, “Kon Tiki” was nominated for an Academy Award as a foreign language film. But this English version –the film was shot with two tracks—was not nominated, which created a marketing challenge for its US distributor, the Weinstein Company. None of the ads could say, “Academy Award nominee,” which seems to have dampened the company’s spirits. I also suspect that the original was trimmed by ten or fifteen minutes. While it might have been handicapped out of the gate, the movie remains a rousing entertainment.
It took the era of modern digital effects to facilitate a rich looking production on a modest budget, but the wait has paid off; convincing scenes of huge whales and sharks menacing the tiny craft underscore the danger. Heyerdahl’s obsession with authenticity, that made the trip even riskier, is well dramatized. And early on, the requisite storm keeps us on edge.
An inspired cast, vivid cinematography, and those huge sea creatures, keep “Kon Tiki” safely on course. But it misses greatness by a hair. The writers and directors have fallen just a little bit short of transcending the material. Had it been more imaginative in creating Heyerdahl or exploring his obsessions, it might have achieved the level of say, Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away.” Still, “Kon Tiki” is an impressive retelling of an amazing story. Finally the sea and this primitive raft are the real stars, along with the subtle visual effects that bring them to life on screen.
“Kon-Tiki” was more successful in its overseas theatrical distribution than here in the states. It made the rounds of the art circuit, but never really took off. While it looks great on a big screen you’ll probably end up seeing it on DVD. It’s worth looking for.