It’s Woody Allen’s Fault
Noah Baumbach’s new Frances Ha shows the fate of a generation enamored of the nebbishy narcissist
The willingness to make sacrifices should be an essential trait in any sympathetic protagonist, so the fact that we let this slide with Allen (who, unlike Seinfeld or David, we’re unquestionably meant to root for) is worth pondering. We buy into Allen’s balking state of mind because he surrounds himself with people who buy into it as well, and it comforts us that a man who indulges in so many of his worst impulses could also be so smart, successful, sensitive and witty. When Allen says that his masturbation is “sex with someone I love,” it’s an admission of his intense narcissism—but it’s also funny, and he invites us to laugh, and so we laugh.
Baumbach strips that cushion away. His heroes do nothing but balk at necessary sacrifices. Greenberg turned down a shot at music stardom in his 20s and now spends his days ranting at the wind. In Squid, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) humiliates himself at a school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own song, insisting, “I could have written it.” For her part, Frances refuses to accept the fact that her best friend and only support system (Mickey Sumner) is drifting away from her, insisting to anyone who will listen, “Her and I are the same person but with different hair.”
What interests Baumbach is the spiritual poison that comes with trying to float through life in a state of suspended maturity. His characters believe in Allen’s self-serving promise, in the idea that one can read and sigh and kvetch all day and still find close approximations of happiness and success. But unlike Allen’s, Seinfeld’s, or David’s characters, they haven’t earned anything: They didn’t fight tooth and nail to get to where they are, and they are more likely than not to squander the opportunities available to them—as when Frances scores a Paris loft for a weekend but sleeps through her entire stay.
In recent years Allen has retreated, becoming a citizen of the world rather than solely of his own head. Still, his anachronistic promise of pontificating-to-riches is still intact: It can be seen in his 2011 megahit Midnight in Paris, when whiny time-traveling novelist Owen Wilson, counting Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein among his support group, couldn’t fathom a fate worse than penning screenplays. Allen’s most recent film, To Rome With Love, even had a thankless supporting part for Gerwig as the too-good girlfriend of her fellow Baumbach-movie alum Eisenberg. Her cheery blandness gives her neurotic partner leeway to satisfy his romantic urges with another woman, which is how relationships tend to fall apart in Allen’s films.
Meanwhile, Frances will dance through the streets of New York, young and bursting with a wealth of thoughts but no clue. She’s another wandering member of Noah Baumbach’s Lost Tribe, in search of a hermetically sealed fantasyland that was promised to her by the pied piper of Manhattan.
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