Thoughts on seeing ‘Frances Ha’ in an empty multiplex

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franceshaIs there room for Greta Gerwig in today’s mainstream Hollywood?

I finally caught up with the Noah Baumbach movie, “Frances Ha,” and was charmed by its warm and sometimes romantic take on an aspiring 27-year-old New York City artist trapped in a period of economic distress.

The movie was shot in beautiful black-and-white which suggests a French New Wave film of the 1960s, but the chic look of the film heightens the desperate plight of aspiring dancer Frances who can barely make rent, and is becoming painfully aware that most of her artist peers are trust fund babies who only appear to be broke.

In the early scenes, Frances loses her boyfriend and her best friend/roommate, and we see that she isn’t really equipped to fit in with a lot of new people. Friend-since-college Sophie (Mickey Sumner) understands and loves Frances’ quirks after years of being together. But she has the money to move into a better apartment in Tribeca and a boyfriend she might marry.

On her own, and desperate for company, Frances starts to look like a budding crazy lady — a post-college Pookie Adams or a Holly Golightly who isn’t a cool enough customer to turn tricks in order to finance an apartment.

“Frances Ha” was a big hit at last ffrancesha3all’s New York Film Festival and has been doing well at urban arthouses since it went into theatrical release a month ago, but at my local multiplex the other night I was one of three people in the audience.

The gulf between what plays well in sophisticated urban arthouses and what works in commercial venues elsewhere is becoming wider by the minute. At the IFC Center in Manhattan, “Frances Ha” was turning away customers during its first week, in a Connecticut multplex it’s a commercial disaster.

The position of the movie’s star, Greta Gerwig, in today’s Hollywood seems as precarious as Frances’ place in the New York modern dance company she wants to join. Gerwig has strong but offbeat charisma that might have earned her the sort of starring roles in major Hollywood productions that Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton and Frances McDormand landed as they moved from their 20s into their 30s back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

40 years ago, there were lots of fascinating women whose appeal was not based on drop dead beauty starring in movies and winning Oscars — Glenda Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Ellen Burstyn — but those days now seem as archaic as the heyday of Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman.

One character in “Frances Ha” keeps describing the title character as “undateable” and another guy in the movie says he recognized her on the street by her “man walk.” In other words, Gerwig does not have the toned body or the flawless, glamour girl face that seems to be necessary these days to be the eye-candy co-star in a Robert Downey vehicle or one of the comic-book franchises.

Fortunately, for Gerwig and us, she is the muse/girlfriend of the very talented Noah Baumbach and they are already preparing a follow-up to “Frances Ha.” But, an actress with so many obvious gifts should be able to appear in movies that are meant to be more widely seen.

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Joe Meyers

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