Set It Up
A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.
Who nowadays makes plush-looking feature films in black-and-white? Well, Noah Baumbach does, and if you consider that his “Frances Ha” lavishes its gorgeous monochromes on contemporary New York and the luminous countenance of Greta Gerwig (his star, current g.f. and co-writer), you might suspect that Baumbach’s latest owes more than a tiny debt to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” If you also factor in that the film is full of nods to the French New Wave, including an obnoxious overuse of classic scores by Georges Delerue, you might deduce that Baumbach’s reverential hyper-cinephilia has gotten the better of him again. And you would be right. But only to a point.
The truth is, the brittle self-consciousness (half boastful, half embarrassed) signified by his cinematic name-dropping has always been Baumbach’s artistic Achilles heel — his previous films include “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” — but thankfully it doesn’t completely undo “Frances Ha.” His collaboration with Gerwig has a freshness that may or not owe something to first-blush romance but that renders this bittersweet comedy occasionally inspired, frequently charming and always watchable.
film’s shambling story is rooted in a particular passage of life.
Frances Halliday (Gerwig) at age 27 finds herself in that Janus-like,
post-college phase where part of her seems to want to retreat to the
womb, or at least Vassar, while another part wants to forge confidently
into the realities of grown-up life in New York. For the moment, she’s
stuck between the poles, going round and round. As the film opens, she’s
trying not very successfully to get some career traction in a dance
company, while her closest relationship is with her roommate and best
friend Sofie (Mickey Sumner). The two young women act like teenagers,
playing all sorts of silly games and saying “I love you” to each other
more frequently than people who actually are in love do.
is the kind of giddy, reality-escaping youthful friendship that seems
eternal until (as inevitably happens) one party decides to loosen the
ties in order to move on. When Sofie does just that, moving out in order
to share a coveted Tribeca apartment with another friend, Frances is
left unmoored. For a while she moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji
(Michael Zegen), dry-witted Brooklyn hipsters whose lives seem to
consist mainly of wisecracks, beer and hookups. For a few moments it
seems like there might be a spark between Frances and Benji, an aspiring
"SNL" writer, but that passes and he soon dubs her, in a bit of teasing
In observing these characters’ whimsically wayward lives, their
indecision over work and frequent skipping between living situations
(their apartments range across Manhattan and Brooklyn), Baumbach
captures the current young-NYC-boho milieu with an exactitude that’s
almost anthropological and a lyricism that’s both droll and engaging.
(As he no doubt could tell you, the combination recalls Godard’s
“Masculine/Feminine.”) The pleasing effect here is owed not only to the
flavorful, understated precision of the film’s writing and direction,
including the poised restraint of Sam Levy’s exemplary b&w lensing,
but also to the exceptional work of supporting players Sumner, Driver
and Zegen, who all qualify as up-and-coming actors to watch.
partly due to these assets that the film’s first half proves notably
stronger than the second. Once Lev and Benji are left behind, and Sofie
moves to Japan with her Goldman Sachs sweetie, Frances simply drifts.
She goes to Sacramento to visit the folks for Christmas. She trips off
to Paris for the weekend, but misses the friend she went to see. She
returns to Vassar where she pours wine for visiting bigwigs, a dancer
reduced to the status of unpaid servant. As with the film’s earlier
segments, these scenes are ably staged and benefit from Gerwig’s smart,
appealing performance, but they add nothing either to the story or the
character. When Frances is doing nothing but drifting aimlessly, it’s
hard to escape the feeling that the film is doing the same — right up to
its contrived and hard-to-credit penultimate scene, where the desultory
suddenly becomes upbeat.
it’s tempting to file “Frances Ha” under “pretty good, but could be a
lot better if it tried.” In that sense, it provides an unfortunate
correlative for the continuing career trajectory of Baumbach, a
perennial underachiever. By any reckoning he owes a lot to privilege:
the right upbringing in the right place with the right parents (a
cinephile professor and a film critic), the right schools, right
connections and right friends, even the right producer (Scott Rudin).
Having all of these advantages, however, has not stimulated in him any
noticeable drive to demonstrate that his talent surmounts them. Rather,
it has left him able to make watchable films, but not challenged to make
It’s perhaps noteworthy that the archetypal Baumbach protagonist seems to be trying to escape a state of arrested development, one that hints rather unsubtly at autobiographical roots. “The Squid and the Whale,” his most acclaimed and successful film, rehearsed the trauma of his parents’ divorce. His last feature, “Greenberg,” is my favorite of his films, in part because it suggests the start of a way out both tantalizing stasis and the threat of regression. Its main character (memorably played by Ben Stiller) is a failed rock musician who’s been getting nowhere for too long and moves to L.A. in search of a new beginning. However awkwardly, he finds just that. We can only wish the same for Noah Baumbach: a path into a form of filmmaking that is truly his own, rather than being bound by the tastes and limitations of his parents’ cinematic heroes.
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