In the first ten minutes, you realize this is going to be a melange of a Woody Allen black-and-white paen to New York and Lena Dunham’s HBO sensation Girls. Dunham’s show is an entertaining but often frustrating characterization of four girls, post-college, making their way in the world of New York City via witty, self-satisfied rejoinders and copious infusions of cash from their parents. Loaded with self-esteem but no brightly discernible skill, Dunham’s quartet negotiate the shoals of a hip, ever-changing landscape while coming to the realization that every girl with a B.A. from Oberlin is not destined to be a smash in the literary and art worlds. It’s hard to like her characters, especially, Dunham herself, whose Hannah is so grotesque, self-involved and deluded that you’re often left cringing or sputtering in amazement. Or, at almost 50 years of age and closest in sensibility to her poor beleaguered parents on the show, I am.
Still, Girls is a solid work, surprisingly addictive, and it always elicits a great discussion that can range from generational rot to what the cool kids are into these days. I also credit Dunham with either knowingly or unknowingly crafting a sharp indictment of extended, subsidized adolescence, and despite her ridiculous persona as her star ascends, I think she knows it.
Or she should.
If Girls were a quintet, the protagonist of Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig, would play the mopey, co-dependent would-be dancer. Unfortunately, Frances is not in the hands of Dunham, who could effectively compensate for Frances’s pathetic existence with humor or humanism. Instead, she’s in the hands of a filmic sadist, Noah Baumbach, whose characters are often so vile and/or degraded that you wonder if the point of the exercise is solely to make the audience feel better about themselves. As the divorcing parents in Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels are positively toxic, as is Nicole Kidman’s abusive, miserable mother in Margot at the Wedding. Ben Stiller’s Greenberg is similarly noxious, though at least Baumbach offers some redemptive qualities near the end of that film.
The difference between those characters and Frances, however, is that they are in varying positions of power, whereas as a 27 year old Vassar grad who is as much a dancer as I am a power forward, Frances is at the mercy of her surroundings and singularly ill-equipped to handle them. You can feign amusement at her plight in the various uncomfortable situations Baumbach creates for her only so long before you feel guilty. Baumbach may have caught on to his excess, because in the last five minutes, Frances develops character, self-esteem and a place in this world for no apparent reason other than to avoid a mass suicide at the local cineplex.