frances-ha-posterDirector Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.

Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.

With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) frances-ha-still-3while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.

Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, 87the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.

More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.

Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. frances-ha-580Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.

As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.

The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come). Update 2: Frances Ha will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, July 5. Update 3: Frances Ha finally arrives in Broward County thanks to the Cinema Paradiso starting Friday, July 12. Update 4: Frances Ha has also made its way to O Cinema beginning Thursday, July 4.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach sharpens his usual focus on the greedy tics of self-absorbed protagonists by pointing his camera on nothing less than a formerly institutionalized misanthrope, probably his most extremely dysfunctional character to date. But the title character is something much more than a self-centered egoist who hates people. He re-directs the hatred he has for himself into disdain for the behaviors of not only what he perceives are the common masses but the actions of those that love him. Baumbach and his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, craft a masterful script to form Greenberg, and Ben Stiller does an amazing, patient job at bringing this character to life.

Greenberg is a carpenter with an attitude fueled by a passion for letters of complaint to companies like Starbucks and American Airlines and wistful memories from the 80s of playing in a new wave/post-punk trio that nearly signed a major label deal. But the only real talent he has is finding something to complain about in every situation he stumbles into, especially with those he thinks he knows. His letters are nothing compared to the anger he throws on those closest to him.

After supposedly being released from a mental hospital, Greenberg, a New York transplant, finds himself house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. While Greenberg’s brother heads off to enjoy Vietnam with his wife and kids, Greenberg is left to tend to the family dog, who has grown weak with an autoimmune disorder (Greenberg at one point worries about catching the dog’s illness, but it’s as if the dog actually caught it from him). In the meantime, he takes advantage of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer in her mid 20s with a weak self-esteem. Despite his crude manner of canceling a date with her at a bar to instead split her only bottle of beer at her place, she accepts his advances for a brief sexual encounter that ends as abruptly as it had begun, doing nothing for either one of them.

As their relationship turns on but mostly off, the care of the dog seems to provide the only glue that can hold them together. Greenberg also spends much of his time catching up with his former band mate and longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a soft-spoken man whose 10-year marriage with the mother of his only son has begun to unravel. Greenberg is more happy about the marriage’s dissolution than he is about signs Ivan can work it out. During a dinner out with Ivan and Florence, Greenberg suddenly shuts down an attempt by Ivan to celebrate Greenberg’s 40th birthday by having the waiters bring over a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” with a tantrum. These two characters’ generous attempts to show Greenberg some affection coupled with their own sorry states provide the perfect foils for Greenberg, whose weak anger could find no more comfortable place (there are some brief moments when Greenberg tries to confront strangers to sad but funny ineffectiveness).

Stiller’s performance is nothing short of brave because you can bet lots of people will come to this movie expecting the buffoonery that helped get him the popularity he currently enjoys. But this movie is no Dodge Ball or Tropic Thunder. The last time Stiller did something this low-key was in Reality Bites, though the Greenberg character is probably as ugly as the one in Permanent Midnight, a hardcore tragic drama of a man’s rise and fall in the world of writing a sitcom for TV, based on the true story of the writer behind “ALF.” That film remains one of his least popular.

In Greenberg, Stiller captures his character’s complex as much with his pauses and silences as with his harsh opinions. At Greenberg’s low-key 40th birthday celebration, when Ivan says, “Youth is wasted on the young,” Greenberg responds by saying, “I’d go further,” while staring down at his menu. “I’d say life is wasted on … people.”

I was hoping this to be a laugh-a-minute, though self-deprecating film like the Squid and the Whale, but Baumbach has taken the self-deprecation to a whole new level, along the lines of Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg is a dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self than anyone else around him. Greenberg is a walking pile of hang-ups that he constantly projects on others. What he hates about people is what he hates about himself. Throughout the movie, Greenberg meets people who have moved on and grown up, while Greenberg seems to delight in his therapist’s analysis of his issues. Toward the end of the movie, he attempts to bond with Florence telling her, “My shrinks says, I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because it felt like I didn’t ever really live it in the first place.” Again, his attempts to bond with others turns to himself.

The movie culminates with a drug-fueled party, where Greenberg finally gets a look in the mirror per se, as scores of young people surround him, and it’s literally an unrecognizable, lifeless creature floating in his brother’s pool with a single eye staring back at him. From here on, he can either choose to run further from himself and his life or dive in and start to finally live. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote, “This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries. One must live with time or die with it, or else elude the greater life.” Baumbach offers no clear answers as to whether this lump of wounded humanity has learned to take personal responsibility for maintaining a relationship. The audience can only hope that Greenberg’s choice at the end of the movie to not run away from his developing sense of self is but the start of something remotely caring of others.

In the end, Greenberg proves itself as one of those rare character studies that keeps you hooked with interest thanks to a strongly drawn out and naturally played unstable protagonist (reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s under-appreciated Punch Drunk Love). Stiller’s subtle acting is a refreshing change from his usual shrill, over-the-top clowns. Credit is also due to the supporting work by Gerwig and Ifans, who play people with more subtle hang-ups, yet know how to live in their skin with just enough comfort. Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but it shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior.

Greenberg is rated ‘R’ and opens in wide release on Friday, March 26.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)