In Whit Stillman’s incandescent, Lubitsch-worthy Damsels In Distress, Greta Gerwig’s idiosyncratic screen presence was mined for all its potential riches; In Stillman’s hands she could be linguistically complex, stubborn, even sinister. Now dating Noah Baumbach, Gerwig is the front-and-center Muse and co-creator of his Frances Ha, a brief, B&W character study of a 27-year-old dancer whose life in Manhattan is just as uncoordinated as her steps. It’s likeable and well photographed, but in his fawning Baumbach has peeled off layers from both Gerwig and himself. Frances Ha is self-consciously slight, a snapshot that fails to develop.
I haven’t followed the “Mumblecore” movement since 2010, seeing Andrew Bujalski’s mature Beeswax and Aaron Katz’s stylish Portland mystery Cold Weather as symbolic kiss-offs to this very insular, very mid-aughts DIY phenomenon. Clearly Baumbach was taken with it, no doubt first noticing Gerwig in her ex-comrade Joe Swanberg’s seminal Hannah Takes The Stairs and casting her to poignant effect in Greenberg. Baumbach dabbled in Mumblecore, having produced Swanberg’s haunting 2008 film Alexander The Last before stepping in and escorting Gerwig across the ballroom. At this point though, Swanberg has blossomed into one of the most talented young filmmakers in American cinema, and his recent features Silver Bullets (the best horror movie in five years) and the wrenching Art History have probed intersecting themes of lust, art making, psychosis and betrayal in taut, innovative ways that don’t fall under the “Mumblecore” tag or any tag at all. Frances Ha is a late entry in the Mumblecore cycle and its effects---stumbly “improvised” dialogue, threadbare running time, examination of an aimless (also white, upper class, Artistic) Lost Generation—feel dated, even archaic, especially after the advancements made by Swanberg. This wouldn’t be a problem if Baumbach had simply updated the sensibility of his debut feature Kicking And Screaming, which certainly influenced Mumblecore, but his lax compositions and Hipster’s Digest scenes are redolent of a desire to imitate the work of Bujalski and Swanberg. If this is Baumbach “re-inventing” himself, may I suggest retroactive appraisal.
A director with as vast a knowledge of film history as Baumbach should realize that in his ardor of Gerwig he’s fallen into the “Auteur/Ingénue” syndrome that claimed Peter Bogdanovich, whose affection for Cybill Shepherd led him to grossly misuse and overestimate her talents in the likes of Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love. The sad fact is that Gerwig isn’t much for physical comedy, and instead of calling back to the awkward grace of Marion Davies she futzes around on the dance studio floor and a woebegone waitressing (or “pouring”) job in the vice of her director’s constricting monochrome halo. The eeriness and complexity of her “Let’s do the Sambola” call to arms in Damsels is narrowed here to pissing off a subway platform and making the most out of bite-sized vignettes like Frances’s visits to her parents in Sacramento or an impromptu, melancholy Parisian jet. She’s also upstaged by the tic-free, genuinely unpredictable Adam Driver, as a womanizing roommate she crashes with after being ditched by her BFF (Mickey Sumner). It should be noted that Frances briefly resides with Driver’s Lev and another young turk in a unisex living situation vastly inferior to the wit and gender dynamism displayed weekly by Zooey Deschanel, Max Greenfield and Jake Johnson on the excellent show New Girl. But of course Frances Ha is better than that fluff. It could tell you itself.
In his derivation of outmoded indie style, and distracted by the delight of showing off his new lady, Baumbach largely eschews the pointed, astute storytelling that made past films like The Squid And The Whale so powerful. In Squid, the foreshadowed, symphonic use of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” to augment domestic misery smacked one right in the gut. There’s nothing as tricky or effective here. Frances Ha’s passages are largely cut to ribbons, as she breaks up, flirts, hangs out, contemplates, travels and lives in a perpetual gimcrack zap without dramatic anchor. Thus most of the film feels oddly tossed-off and enervating at the same time. Her magical dance down a city street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is deflated by jump cuts that should have stepped aside for an extended, graceful track. Also unnerving are the staccato bursts of Baumbach’s trademark pornographic dialogue exchanges. Amidst the preciousness we’re suddenly hit with talk about how a boyfriend loves to “cum in my face” or how a sexual conquest can only climax in the 69 position. Far from objecting on moral grounds, I’m only struck with how distracting these bon mots are. Appropriate for the poison pen Hamptons drama Margot At The Wedding, but for this love letter to the French New Wave, Woody Allen, and Ms. Gerwig?
The film finds agreeable footing in its third act, where Frances hits her nadir in a university regression and tries salvaging her relationship with her friend and the future. Still, the concluding charms inevitably cast a pall over what came before. What if the majority of the film were allowed to breath? What if it were more disciplined and focused on one or two aspects of Frances’s life, her dancing or relationships? Would they yield the same concentrated pleasures as Robert Altman’s The Company or Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage? Or was the modest enterprise cursed from the moment Baumbach and Gerwig decided to have their damsel trip and fall while running down a sidewalk, garishly disappearing from view?
Despite the occasional guff routine and motes of unfortunate ethnic humor, this Own Wilson and Vince Vaughn reteam is considerably more winning than Frances Ha, being the first PG-13 Vaugn vehicle that isn’t atrocious and even sneaking in some wise observations about getting older and counting your losses amidst enjoyable Revenge Of The Nerdsian set pieces. Two hour commercial for Google? Of course. But who cares, there are worse companies. Seeing these veteran pros I’ve basically been watching my entire life team up with an engaging bunch of ragtags in a techie decathlon is increasingly pleasurable. It has a good-natured glow.
The Hangover III
Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus worshipping cultural tragedy of a movie site, delivers a stone, final judgment on this last entry in the comedy franchise. The Hangover III is poor because it’s an “angrily dark action movie.” And that’s a bad thing? By making the third entry so gustily gonzo, Philips seems energized in a way he hasn’t been since chronicling the fringe ramblings of Al Goldstein and G.G. Allin. The inspired elements of the first Hangover were hampered by a scrim of “Bro” misogyny, which was thankfully corrected in the superior sequel and this crowning entry. (It’s as if the first film was helmed by Bradley Cooper’s douchebag Phil and the others by Galifianakis’ spacey manchild Alan.) Hangover III is a kinetic, bruising crime story with incidental humor, which makes it even funnier. Philips’ rejuvenated energy allows for some unexpectedly gorgeous widescreen cinematography, and it has a creepy, frenzied mirth that Guy Richie and Martin McDonagh have tried and failed to pull off. Like the later Saw movies it’s a reminder that good results can spring from the Studio demand for extended narrative, and its invention leaves a noted indie feeling increasingly rote.