'Frances Ha' 

The joke’s on us

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A film called Frances Ha obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is often a good thing for a slight, slice-of-life “dramedy.” But when the credits roll on this meandering, low-key affair, the joke’s really on the audience, as there’s just not much there.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old dancer living in New York City. Actually, she doesn’t live so much as she lets life come to her, at its own pace. She is dating Dan (Michael Esper) but spending most of her time with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), with whom she shares an apartment. “We are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” she says of her BFF relationship.

Suddenly everything falls apart. Sophie moves out, and when Dan pushes Frances to move in with him, she ends the relationship. So in a matter of days, Frances’ aimless existence – and it was pretty aimless already – becomes even more directionless.

Trying to recapture some of that lost roommate magic, she moves in with two guys. “The three of us are hilarious together,” Frances tells them. “We’re like a sitcom.” But just like a sitcom, that doesn’t last long either, and Frances is soon off on other non-adventures, such as visiting her parents in California, taking a misguided trip to Paris, teaching dance and even returning to her old college town of Poughkeepsie for a summer job, presumably to rekindle some of the vitality of her early 20s.

“I’m trying to be proactive with my life,” Frances tells herself. Yet she doesn’t really do anything, as she awkwardly admits to a dinner party of casual acquaintances. The same can be said for the film, which also just sits there, offering no real reason to exist other than to pass 90 minutes of your life. Months of Frances’ life pass in minutes, yet those minutes feel like an eternity, thanks to non-action and uninspired editing.

Gerwig is not without charm. She cut her teeth on the films of Joe Swanberg and the mumblecore movement, which embraces an ultra-realistic, low-budget, spare-story style. In that context, Gerwig and this film, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding), might be judged a small success. But if you’re not a fan of that stumbling-through-life aesthetic, you’ll soon realize that, despite astute observations about 20-something existence, Baumbach’s latest project doesn’t offer enough delight to negate its narrative nothingness. It desperately wants to capture the magic of Woody Allen’s Manhattan – with its black-and-white cinematography and New York cool – or perhaps the quirkiness of Wes Anderson, with whom Baumbach has worked. But just like Frances herself, it falls short.

Maybe the best test of a do-nothing comedy is simply whether it makes you laugh. After all, the beloved Seinfeld was often labeled “the show about nothing.” But Seinfeld was consistently funny, and the same just can’t be said for Frances Ha, no matter how refreshingly realistic you find the title character.

★★ (out of 5 stars)

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