Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A (very) rough draft of Frances Ha

There are certain movies you'd swear are ripoffs of other movies if the chronology didn't make a liar out of you.

Take Lola Versus, for example. It's such a blatant Frances Ha ripoff that it's hard to believe it hit theaters 11 months before Noah Baumbach's film.

The primary connective tissue between the two films is of course that they star Greta Gerwig as a late twenties New Yorker caught in a state of existential and romantic confusion, whose name appears in the title. I'm certainly glad that the inferior Lola did not ruin Gerwig for this type of movie, else she might have turned down Baumbach's considerably more sublime approach to the material.

Still, I have to wonder if she was getting a sense of deja vu as she was making Frances.

If you don't wish to know intimate details of one or both of these movies, you may consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Both movies start out with a long-term relationship being aborted. In Frances Ha, Frances balks at her boyfriend's attempt to increase the seriousness of their relationship by suggesting she move in -- which backfires and causes them to break up. In Lola Versus, Lola accepts the boyfriend's attempt at increasing seriousness via a marriage proposal, but then he gets cold feet and calls off the destination wedding after 40 guests have already bought their plane tickets. (Oops.)

Both movies then tackle the living arrangements dictated by the change in a person's relationship status. Frances must find a new apartment when she can no longer afford the rent of the place she shared with Sophie, her best friend, who decided to move in with her boyfriend. Lola has to revoke the sublet on her apartment after the broken engagement means she can no longer live with her ex-fiancee.

Both movies are actually sort of really about the relationship between Gerwig's character and her best friend. Frances Ha is overtly about that, as it functions as a romantic comedy between heterosexual female friends, going through all the vicissitudes of a traditional romantic relationship. Frances and Sophie fall out over a guy, only it's not a guy they both want -- it's Sophie's boyfriend, who Frances doesn't like in part because he's taking Sophie away from her. Lola Versus comes to be about a similar best friend relationship as Lola and her bestie (Alice) also have a falling out, only this is the more traditional kind, where both are interested in the same guy and date him at various junctures, the second of course seeming like a betrayal of the first.

Both movies end with Gerwig's character patching things up with the best friend, but not becoming romantically resolved. The message is clearly that Frances and Lola are taking the time to work on them, to mature, and not to be defined by their relationship to a man.

But before that, both movies contain sections where the characters spiral downward in very "late second act" ways. Frances ends up moving upstate to work at her alma mater as a server of wine at fancy parties, where she is mistaken for a current student, and Lola goes on a bender where she drinks beer from two 40s and gets thrown out of a strip club.

It can't just be the black-and-white that makes Frances Ha better, can it?

Of course not. The difference is really in terms of the subtlety of the approaches. Baumbach is a master of letting small details speak for larger trends, of illustrating ennui through fleeting moments. Co-writers Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, on the other hand, hit you over the head with typical character dysfunctions and obvious dialogue.

There's also a big discrepancy between what the movies do with side characters. The others who weave in and out of Frances' Brooklyn existence are true-to-life types whose self-involvement and narcissism come out in small doses that creep up on you. They are real less-is-more types. On the other hand, Lola's side characters are a "black guy who works with her" (a woefully underused Jay Pharaoh from Saturday Night Live) and Lola's "wacky parents" (played by Bill Pullman and Debra Winger, who still looks great I must say). Lola also has a "comically bad romantic suitor" in addition to the two others who vie for her romantic attentions (the fiancee, who is supposed to represent a bad love interest, and his best friend, who is supposed to represent a good one.)

I suppose it's unfair to hold a second-time director like Wein to the standards of an established master like Noah Baumbach ... but let's just say he should thank his lucky stars that he got his movie made first, or else Lola Versus would add being derivative of a recent hit to its long list of demerits.


Nick Prigge said...

I confess, I had not considered this comparison at all, but clearly your evidence is overwhelming. Then again, I'm in the steep minority of people who liked Lola Versus. Then again, I'm a massive Gerwig apologist.

Vancetastic said...

Gerwig's presence in the film was certainly what made me want to see it. I was cautiously optimistic (despite hearing bad things), but ended up disappointed.