Review: Frances Ha
The Pitch: Manhattan Mumbler Mystery.
The Review: In a world where there’s a paucity of decent female roles – seemingly around one per film if you’re lucky – it’s no surprise that the most talented young actresses and writers are turning out to be one and the same. The likes of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are breaking out of the mumblecore and into the mainstream, and Gerwig has been able to leverage her success to be able to strike a balance between the mainstream and retaining her roots. She’s also made a few collaborations with fellow indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, and their latest joint effort sees him directing, her acting and the pair scripting in the tale of a modern dancer of moderate ability attempting to make her big break in New York City.
Gerwig’s own trajectory may still be resolutely upwards, but Frances Halladay is struggling to keep on an even keel. Her dancing abilities, or lack thereof, have seen her opportunities severely limited with her dance company. Her relationship is going nowhere, so she passes up the chance to move in with her boyfriend to stay rooming with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie moves out anyway, Frances’ already shaky existence is sent spiralling across a number of different lives and friends’ couches or spare rooms – the passage of time indicated by black and white intertitles indicating each time Frances has to change abode by acting as change of address cards – and attempts to make sense of her life as it appears to be adhering closely to the principles of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will).
Let’s make it clear at this point: Gerwig here is very much a mix of the typical mumblecore downer, but with an almost bipolar flipside of the energy and relentless cheeriness of a manic pixie dream girl (without the associated annoying tweeness) and a kooky clumsiness that helps her to remain endearing in the face of repeated adversity. I say endearing, but if that sounds as appealing as rinsing your head in gravel then Frances Ha is not the film for you. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and do not part with 86 minutes of your life that you’ll spend a week moaning you’ll never get back. For those more open to Gerwig’s deliberate charms, this is one of her most appealing on screen performances, even as Frances’ life choices fly in the face of common sense or practicality. Gerwig can light up the screen when she puts her mind to it, and a decent mix of her own dialogue and the joyful vigour with which she attempts to deflect misery and cling to the few things in life she holds dear make Frances’ own arc a relatable one for anyone who’s struggled with the pre-middle aged ennui caused by life heading in the wrong direction.
To what extent you’ll enjoy the rest of Frances Ha will depend entirely on the way you live your life. The cast is filled out with characters who feel normal for New York – but people who you may recognise more from fiction than your own existence – and Frances’ varied interactions with the varied levels of the class system give the film a decent amount of depth; the fact that some of these characters are likeable and just as sympathetic as Frances might even come as a slight surprise, but a welcome one. If you’re a fan of the French new wave, then you’ll quite likely enjoy the homages that Baumbach has made, even the title being a reference to a Jean-Luc Godard work, and Frances even takes a fruitless trip to Paris to ram the point home. Baumbach even delivers homages to French homages to the French new wave, with Frances running down a road to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern Love a lift from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. If like me you’re an uncultured slob and still think Francois Truffaut was just the French guy from Close Encounters, then Baumbach’s layers and setting need to work on their own terms and they don’t always, the occasional stilted conversation tipping too far away from the naturalism and the ending feeling too neat and bow-wrapped. None of it detracts from Gerwig too much, and fame, fortune and a bright future remains more likely for Gerwig than it would seem for her characters.
Why see it at the cinema: The grainy, monochromatic visuals may not sell either New York or Paris to their best effect but Baumbach makes reasonable use of the scenery. See it with a middle class crowd and there’ll be enough knowing titters to make the collective audience experience worthwhile.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and sex references. That amounts to about two and a half dozen f-words and one discussion between the two female leads about awkward sex. Anyone under 15 isn’t going to relate to the characters and their first world problems anyway, so the rating is more of an issue if an average of one swear word every three minutes is likely to offend.
My cinema experience: Picturehouse Cinemas have a regular Sunday morning free members’ preview series, and it’s not often I can get over as I have other Sunday morning commitments. On this occasion, I just about managed to squeak away from those in time to make the dash to the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds. I think I was the last person there, so I let myself in (having booked my ticket over the phone the previous day; the phone line had a computer glitch but I got an e-mail confirmation with an e-ticket, all very civilised). The washed out black and white did make it a slight struggle to find my seat, but thankfully the reclining comfort and top notch projection and sound of the Abbeygate’s smaller screen made it all worthwhile. Just a shame it was too early for a glass of wine…
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: America gets more Brand awareness.
The Review: You wait ages for a Russell Brand film and then two come along at once. Or maybe you don’t; there’s as many people who run screaming at the sight of the scruffy English dandy as who enjoy his schtick, and this remake is an attempt to play on Brand’s particular qualities. He managed to successfully break out of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, getting his own spin-off and it was one that did its best to play to his strengths and his background, allowing him the role of the reforming addict who had a larger than life stage presence. Arthur feels like another attempt to do that, fitting the role to the perception of Brand’s character, but all that serves to do is to show that it’s as easy to get that right as it is to get it badly wrong.
Brand follows in the footsteps of Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, a spoiled rich man with a kid’s outlook on life. The other thing that Arthur has is a drinking problem, although sometimes you feel Arthur’s drinking problem is nearer to that of Ted Striker than a real alcoholic, with Brand alternating between affecting the comedy slurring practiced by Dudley Moore in the original and sounding completely sober, often in consecutive scenes. His Arthur is a comedy drunk, except someone seems to have sucked out all the comedy from his performance, with the most risqué action being to snob a complete stranger at a restaurant. The loss of comedy, crucially, seems to stem from Brand attempting to channel Dudley Moore rather than putting his own stamp on the role, but he’s given precious little to work with and there’s a definite whiff of 100 studio executives in the editing room making sure that anything too unpalatable doesn’t make the cut.
While the comedy fares pretty poorly, some other elements do manage to rise above the material a little better. Most of those centre around either Helen Mirren, who’s far too good for this and isn’t afraid to prove it repeatedly, or Greta Gerwig. The movie is at its most effective either when Mirren is acting pithy or when Brand and Gerwig are casually flirting and throwing random thoughts into the conversation. There’s a whole host of other famous names involved, from Jennifer Garner in the thankless prospective wife role to Luis Guzman as the quiet chauffeur Bitterman, but none of them make any real impression either way.
The unfortunate exception to that is Nick Nolte, who plays the bride’s father and gets about three scenes. The first of these is meant to be mildly threatening but actually comes over as toe-curlingly embarrassing and almost kills the movie stone dead. It’s symptomatic of the wild shifts in tone which director Jason Winer seems ill-equipped to cope with. It doesn’t really work as a comedy, attempts at pathos fall flat and it’s only the partial romantic success and Helen Mirren that prevent this being a total write off. Sad to say, if you want to see one Russell Brand movie released this April, you should make it Hop, which at least allows Brand to be more Brand. Arthur is as embarrassing as a drunken relative at your school play, and a lot less amusing.
Why see it at the cinema: The audience I saw it with laughed once, so there’s not much to be gained there, but the Grand Central Terminal scenes do benefit from a larger viewing area.
The Score: 4/10
The Pitch: Roger the Crabbin’ Boy. (And yes, before you say anything I know that the Roger the Cabin Boy thing in Captain Pugwash is an urban myth, but the pun doesn’t work otherwise, because he’s Roger Greenberg, not Tom. Okay? OKAY?)
The Review: Well, you’ll have to pardon me for being a little grouchy. I think it’s partly because I had to go to see this twice (having had to leave to pick up my wife half way through the first time I went to see it; more on that later), and partly because if you spend long enough in the company of a man like Roger Greenberg, it’s bound to rub off just a little. Misanthropes and curmudgeons aren’t new as central characters, but the trick if you’re a filmmaker is to get your audience to engage with unsavoury characters, even if you don’t necessarily like them straight off.
Roger Greenberg, though, is a little more complex than that. Rather than direct misanthropy, he alienates himself from the world around him through fear and an unwillingness to connect. And although he comes off as miserly, and he looks his fear of age in the face directly through an uncomfortable birthday dinner, he seems to have a real sense of what’s wrong with the world, but it’s locked in minute detail, rather than in the bigger picture, stuck writing letters to Starbucks about the culture they’ve created rather than trying to fix the important things in life. Consequently, his faults and his unpredictability make him fascinating to us, the audience.
It takes two to tango, or in this case mumble, and the other in this case is Greta Gerwig, whose Florence is the yin to Greenberg’s yang. Where he avoids people, she is the life and soul, and even sings on stage; but they are equally lacking in self confidence and self esteem, and that gives Roger the upper hand, at least to start with. Their relationship is like two revolving magnets – pulled together inexplicably, then pushing each other away almost equally without reason, and we end up wanting him to be with her because we know she’s good for him, but also sensing that maybe she should still be pushing away if she knows what’s good for her. Nonetheless, Gerwig is the emotional bedrock of the movie and allows us to connect to the story through her frustrated emotions.
Other characters swirl around in the mix, as Greenberg reflects on the fifteen years of love and friendships that have gotten away from him, most notably Rhys Ifans’ likeable Ivan and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s distant ex-girlfriend Beth. Most of the characters seem to either pity or condemn Greenberg for what he is, and that only serves to feed his neuroses further. What sits on the surface of Greenberg the movie is a study in character, reflected in the passage of time, where almost no-one is happy and the only people who have direction have left the country or are leaving it. But scratch beneath that surface, and you’ll find the neuroses of the characters that reflect our own natures, the parts of ourselves that we successfully hide or try to forget about, and you’ll then find yourself much happier to spend time in their company than they would be spending time in yours.
And as for seeing it twice, or at least part of it? What struck me was the difference in reactions of my fellow cinema-goers; uncomfortable situations or amusing moments met with stony silence the first time I saw it, but warmly embraced and appreciated the second. The differences in people are sometimes reflected on both sides of the screen, so take a friend if you’re going to this one – it could make all the difference.
Why see it at the cinema: This is partly about what’s on screen, including every last expressive millimetre of Greta Gerwig’s face, and partly for the social barometer that seeing this with a large crowd of people will give you. Especially if most of them are on their own, looking mainly grumpy.
The Score: 8/10