THOSE WHO'VE seen the charming "Frances Ha" can't seem to describe it without tripping over some third party's work.
It's Woody Allen, they say, or the French New Wave, or that HBO show everybody keeps telling you is so good, and then you watch it and it seems like something Mindy Kaling might have made if she were white and not funny.
The whole thing's a bit insulting to Noah Baumbach, who actually co-wrote and directed "Frances Ha," but seems to have been some kind of bystander.
Of course it's true that Baumbach, who specializes in lacerating, funny/awful family dramas ("The Squid and the Whale"), has farmed out some of the work here to star/co-writer Greta Gerwig, a partnership that's yielded something warmer and more humane.
"Frances Ha" (the title will explain itself eventually) is their multiyear project of workshopped ideas about the life of a young New York woman - ideas that take funny shape as the story of a struggling dancer whose life and career are in comic flux.
The movie, shot in creamy black and white, has some ingenious components, the foremost being its offbeat breakup story - the study of a deep friendship's sudden collapse. Everything for Frances unravels when her roommate/best friend (Mickey Sumner) suddenly gets engaged. The way the movie examines this situation is typically keen and careful - you really feel Frances' dislocation as she realizes all the private, third-wheel jokes she used to share with her roommate are now about her.
The cast-out Frances has no place to live, and this leads to another clever device - the movie is organized as a series of addresses, where the (literally) tripped-up Frances tries to find footing. Sublets, hotel rooms, apartments, a series of roommate auditions, temporary arrangements. Each place tells a story of the city, and each tells us more about Frances - not always flattering, but usually funny. At a dinner party, she drinks too much, talks too much, and the movie hits that excruciating pitch of embarrassment at which Baumbach excels.
Some of these moments seem to tell a larger story of women like Frances - young women whose credentials far outweigh their prospects. Gerwig and Baumbauch have resisted any larger generational inferences, but there's something resonant to her serial crash-padding, her unemployment, her gnawing vulnerability. Watching Frances stare forlornly at the taunting prompt of a mercenary ATM, wondering if she can justify a $3 processing fee, feels universal.
Still, Frances is going somewhere. She's sure of it, and so are we. The destination has something to do with her dead-end career as a dancer. There's a quietly wonderful role here for Broadway dancer Charlotte d'Amboise as a dance-company leader who spots something in Frances and nurtures it.
As a dancer, Frances is all spirit and no athleticism - her boss sees it and starts to nudge her in a different, more suitable direction.
It's not an address, but it just might be a home.