"I'm not a real person yet." The line is a little obvious coming from the lead in a movie about a young woman lacking the conventional signposts of adulthood — a career, a stable relationship, a place to live. But then, like so much of Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," the scene achieves something just as original and honest. Frances (Greta Gerwig) makes the remark before dashing off from a dinner date to find a cash machine and the money she forgot to bring. She falls on her face while racing back.
"Oh my God, you're bleeding," her date tells her when she returns.
Frances: "I'm sorry."
Her date: "Well don't apologize to me."
Baumbach's black-and-white exploration of adulthood and its discontents is rife with such nicely written passages, where people do or say the wrong thing, like real people often do. But it's also filled with the kinds of things only movie characters say. Its greatest strength is its star, and its greatest weakness an unfortunate similarity to her character. Frances suffers from a lack of direction, and "Frances Ha," though funny, charming and often smartly observed, does too.
The film unfolds in a series of disasters. When we meet Frances she's living in a cute Brooklyn apartment with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances declines her boyfriend's invitation to move in, effectively ending their relationship, and the movie suggests her decision is partly because of loyalty to Sophie. To have a best friend paying half the rent is paradise, which Sophie immediately disrupts: She's moving in with another girl who's found a better place in Manhattan.
Frances' life unravels from there. She loses her job as an assistant dancer — a position that sounds precarious to say the least — and the sudden lack of employment dislodges her from her new roommate situation. As her existence becomes increasingly peripatetic, the film marks time not with the calendar but with the address book. Frances' journey is one of devolution, a downward spiral through ZIP codes that finally comes to rest, rather hilariously, back in a dorm room at her alma mater.
Baumbach's film is never less than entertaining and frequently funny. Its comedy is grounded in a self-effacing charm, epitomized in a dinner party scene where Frances must face down an entire table of successful people distracted if not dumbfounded by her current instability. She's temporarily bunking with one of the dinner guests, and wondering what to do about work. But her reason for being at the party seems somewhat contrived, so extreme is her socio-economic contrast to the bankers and successful journalists gathered there.
Frances has a version of what the comedian Louis C.K. called "white people problems." On the way out of the party, she announces she's going to Paris for the weekend (a lie), awkwardly forcing the hosts to loan her the Parisian apartment they just spent the evening boasting about. Frances must pay for the tickets with a credit card, and accidentally sleeps through most of the trip on some kind of sedative, completely failing to find the friend she was going to meet. The whole zany segment is as gorgeous as it is humorous, and if all you want from the film is screwball comedy with a contemporary spin, "Frances Ha" doesn't disappoint.
Frances is a great comic heroine, but she's an ill-defined character in an ill-defined story. Gerwig's screen presence is unrivaled. It doesn't seem to matter who she's playing — that person will be enchanting. But there isn't anyone or anything near Gerwig's wattage anywhere else in the film to counter it, to create something meaningful out of the copious, vibrant wit. Frances exists in a vacuum. Other things exist only by the light she casts on them, including her plight, which ends ups seeming, like everything else, a mere projection. What does Frances really want? What is she supposed to be learning?
Maybe that isn't a problem to contemporary audiences. The film has been superficially compared to Woody Allen's "Manhattan," but the grim reality roiling beneath that 1979 comic drama seems unwelcome in 2013. Maybe reality plays, in this age of self-aware irony, as pretence. "Frances Ha," unlike "Manhattan," is too hung up on that contemporary, clever veneer of knowing it's a just movie to bother with such things as character progression and the realization of truths. Perhaps, in its estimation, such things can't be found at the movies, or in new apartments, or anywhere else. (R) 86 min. S