Not once, not twice, but three times in the course of the 86-minute running time of the extravagantly praised Frances Ha is the title character shown running through Manhattan. Once, we see her running with her best friend. Another time we see her running to find an ATM. Then we see her running while improvising dance moves.
This is meant to show us Frances’s exuberance, her zest, her joie de vivre in the course of this the-way-these-kids-today-live-now movie. Frances may be 27, she may be penniless, she may be struggling, she may not be able to make a solid relationship with a man, and she may not have the dancing talent she desperately wants to have. But she can’t help but run!
Young people used to run a lot in French movies of the early 1960s—one thinks of Jeanne Moreau and her two suitors in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, who positively gamboled. But that was a time when directors like Truffaut were discovering the excitement of having cameras following people as they moved through real places in natural light. Those scenes brought a new informality and intimacy to the movies—50 years ago.
Today, bits like Frances running through Manhattan evoke not Truffaut but a commercial for an antidepressant that needs lots of background footage of people doing active things while the narrator talks rapidly about all the potential side effects. Indeed, the running and running and running seems more like a depressed person’s idea of what a nondepressed person is like than a genuine expression of vivacity. Whatever it is, it’s very, very false.
Like HBO’s Girls, Frances Ha is another one of these portraits of struggling young people made by wildly successful young people. Frances Ha was cowritten by its star, Greta Gerwig, who has been appearing in movies as a writer and director and leading performer since she was an undergraduate at Barnard. Like Lena Dunham, the star and author of Girls, she is not yet 30 and has known nothing but what it is like to be garlanded for the entirety of her adulthood.
Girls is a far more tough-minded piece of work than Frances Ha, because Dunham seems to find her contemporaries irritating in their shiftlessness. By contrast, Gerwig seems to be showing compassion and understanding for the travails of women her own age; but the whole project features more than a faint whiff of condescension and contempt. Gerwig and her collaborator, director Noah Baumbach, almost seem to be patting Frances on the head for sticking with it even though it’s just so very hard for her.
Baumbach fell in love with Gerwig when they made the brilliant and difficult Greenberg together in 2010 (he left his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, for her), and the movie is clearly designed to be a valentine to her much in the way Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s valentine to his ex-love, Diane Keaton. He wants to bathe her in soft light, let her show the world her charmingly off-kilter way of moving and talking, give her a chance to exercise her acting chops in a few dramatic scenes, and make her a star the way Allen did Keaton.
But the thing is, Diane Keaton was funny, and Annie Hall was a romantic comedy—and I don’t know what Frances Ha is. It feels like a comedy, but there are very few laughs in it. And as for romance, the only one on display here is between Frances and her best friend from college, Sophie. What little plot there is has to do with Sophie pulling away from Frances as she pairs off with a Wall Street guy; Frances’s heartbreak is not over her failure to find a suitable mate but the loss of her friend. That is an honest life dynamic, and the movie is best in its exploration of it.
There are good little things scattered through Frances Ha—as when Frances takes a spur-of-the-moment two-day trip to Paris she can’t afford and is jet-lagged or passed out through most of it—but the effort by critics to pump it and Gerwig up into something original and socially significant is bizarre. This is a tiny and inconsequential movie about someone who is not very interesting. If Frances Ha existed in real life, Greta Gerwig would be far too busy to bother with her. And so should you be.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.