‘Frances Ha” is a comedy about youthful haplessness trying to find its hap. The movie has been shot in lustrous black and white — the black and white of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” with less magic and more grit — and it stars Greta Gerwig, with whom it is hoped you will be as enchanted as the film’s director (and Gerwig’s significant other), Noah Baumbach.
I confess to not being among the smitten. Gerwig is a big blonde — in a few years, someone may have the wit to cast her in an adaptation of the Dorothy Parker story of that title — whose characters tend to stumble through life with gaucherie and charm. She manages the trick of seeming gracefully graceless, and in films like “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Lola Versus,” and Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” Gerwig plows a likable but dangerously narrow rut. She’s the current generation’s Diane Keaton, which says as much about them as about her.
Frances is yet another of the actress’s adorable ditherers, turning the corner of her late 20s and shocked that her friends have decided to grow up. She’s a dancer — there’s a joke in there that the film doesn’t quite get — but mostly she teaches dance classes and works the studio’s front desk. (Broadway hoofer Charlotte d’Amboise plays her boss with the tough love of a woman remembering her own Frances.)
The drama (such as it is) kicks off when roommate and bestest friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), decides to move in with her boyfriend, a Wall Street bro named Dan (Michael Esper). To Frances, the betrayal borders on the apocalyptic, since her intimate bond with Sophie — their private jokes verge on baby talk — has allowed her to remain in emotional footie-pajamas well into adulthood. An odyssey begins, from couch to couch, city to city, and self to self.
Baumbach’s earlier films — “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg” — revel in the bleak comedy of prickly people making life harder for themselves. They can be painful to watch but they yield rich, acid truths about behavior. “Frances Ha” is a lark by comparison, a Manhattan fable shot, guerilla-style, by a filmmaker in love with his subject.
Fine. Plenty of directors have swooned over their leading ladies and made it work. There’s only so long you can watch an amorphous blob, though, before you want her to get on with it. Frances keeps coming up against people more defined than she — an older crowd at a dinner party, a caustic fellow dancer (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s kid), even a college student (Hannah Dunne) working an alumni reunion table with a cash-hungry Frances. Her shapelessness charms them, confuses them, bores them, and they move on. As do we. Honestly, I found myself hoping “Frances Ha” would circle back to Sophie, since Sumner has an astringency that’s interesting to watch. You never doubt she’ll survive in the city even as you wonder how Frances will make it for three blocks without falling down. (In one scene, she does just that.)
There’s a sadness hovering in the background of this movie that Baumbach never fully engages. It’s the tragedy of the child who grows old without knowing how. Frances goes home, but you can’t go home again. She travels to Paris — for one day. She washes up in an apartment with two guys, hipster ladies’ man Lev (Adam Driver) and cynical Benji (Michael Zegen), but the film doesn’t go for the sitcom quirk of “New Girl” or, despite Driver’s presence, the ruthlessness of “Girls.” “Frances Ha” would rather disillusion its heroine gently. The movie’s a love letter, when an intervention might be more in order.