Writer-director Noah Baumbach's wrenchingly terrific "The Squid and the Whale" (2005) examined a grievance-ridden family (based on his own) torn asunder by divorce. His "Margot at the Wedding" (2007) was a cruel autopsy of 30-something siblings' hatred and intrigue. In "Greenberg" (2010), he plumbed 40-something Ben Stiller's bitter midlife crisis.
Mr. Baumbach, in short, is a man with an identity crisis for all seasons. The new one at hand belongs to 20-something Frances (Greta Gerwig), a contemporary New York kind of Georgy Girl. At the outset of "Frances Ha," she's lithe and lively, thriving with a dance company apprenticeship and great career expectations. She has a boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) and a best girlfriend-roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), on whom she is dependent -- so much so that she turns down Dan's proposal to live together.
Dan is "not mad, just disappointed" -- so much so that the scene turns into a noisy breakup.
2 1/2 stars = Average
Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver.
R for sexual references and language.
Free-spirit Frances will soon be the same with Sophie. "You love your cell phone more than me," she sighs -- shortly before Sophie bails on her and their apartment, to take up with Dan.
Frances is undone, thenceforth stumbling through a series of problematic living arrangements and job hurdles. She moves in with sexy pal Lev (Adam Driver) and nerdy Ben (Michael Zegen) but remains too obsessed with Sophie to notice Ben's romantic interest in her. She wanders from one apartment and social faux pas to the next, from Brooklyn to Chinatown to a parental visit in San Diego and even to Paris, where she spends a lost weekend, waiting for a phone call that never comes.
Round about this time, the "Small Change" posters and assorted other nouveau vague references make it clear that Mr. Baumbach and Ms. Gerwig (they co-wrote the script) are attempting their own neo-French New Wave film here. With limited success.
Back in the Big Apple, Frances moves in with a fellow but far more serious dancer (Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep), who takes her to a dinner party during which Frances' bizarre remarks turn everyone off. (What would we -- and Mr. Baumbach and Woody Allen and Luis Bunuel and the Fokkers and half of all films ever made -- do without the dinner-party set piece?)
Director Baumbach's uniquely low-key narrative style relies more on character interaction and his protagonists' quiet private moments than conventional plot action. His situations are realistic and their development tends to be slow, if not downright uncomfortable at times, for being painfully real. He has his own way of seeing and doing things, and it's not Hollywood's way. (One of his detractors said, "I've had root canals that were more enjoyable than 'Margot at the Wedding.' ") His black-and-white cinematography is lovely, but his characters are annoyingly self-absorbed.
Which brings us to Ms. Gerwig -- a magna cum laude Barnard graduate, by the way! -- whose blond hair and dark brows are the perfect Ukrainian epitome of beauty definition. She was a wonderful presence in Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" and the saving grace of Mr. Baumbach's brooding "Greenberg." Her Frances here is a winsome mess, and she knows it. She can't smoke alone. She can't escape her own whimsy or her dysfunctional living situations. If her quirks charm you, you'll love her. If not, you won't.
Ms. Gerwig's HBO "Girls" series co-star Mr. Driver helps out, with his Robert Downey Jr.-type offhand arrogance. ("Wanna see my room?" is his opening line to every girl he brings into his apartment.) The script's moments of hip wit and wisdom can be engaging. ("This apartment is very ... aware of itself.")
But overall, "Frances Ha" is a rom-com without much rom, alternating between short blackout-sketch scenes and long semi-improvised conversations. It not only doesn't dwell on Frances' love life, it barely touches on it. A penitential stint at her upstate alma mater (to teach dance, hang around the old dorm and soul-search) precedes a too-quick resolution -- but at least eschews the standard bromide that a woman's happiness must be found in the arms and bed of the "right" man.
You won't figure out the odd title of this oddly self-obsessed tale until the end.
Citing 20-somethings for self-absorption, of course, is like faulting dogs for barking: It's the nature of the beast -- which Mr. Baumbach's script wryly recognizes in a fine exchange when Frances asks her pal, "Do I look older than 27?"
"No," comes the reply, "but 27 is old."
Opens today at the Regent Square Theater only.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com.