September 8, 2012

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ TORONTO: “Frances Ha” & “Imogene”


One of the things that happens at film festivals is that as you see many films in back-to-back proximity, mini-trends start to emerge, at least in the mind, and pictures that were made entirely separately, and which may well end up released months apart from each other, seem to be in direct competition.  So it is with today’s double feature of comedies tinged with drama about single women in New York struggling to find their place in the world, Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA, from a script he co-wrote with star Greta Gerwig, and IMOGENE, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini from a script by Michelle Morgan.  (Oddly enough, actress Mickey Sumner has a small role in Imogene and a major one in Frances Ha.)

Of the two, Frances Ha is clearly the more substantial, a delightful surprise from Baunbach after his coldly cutting Margot At the Wedding and the grump-fest Greenberg.  The best thing in the latter movie was Gerwig as the aimless young woman who helps Greenberg spark to some form of life, and although Gerwig is playing a different character here, Frances is not dissimilar from her Greenberg counterpart.  A dancer whose clock on a potential professional career is ticking, Frances is amiably without direction.  The strongest relationship in her life with with best friend Sophie (Sumner), but Sophie is beginning to grow up faster than Frances, and Frances is hurt and–if she’ll just admit it to herself–worried to be left behind.

Frances Ha has already been and will continue to be compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls (much to Baunbach’s disdain, as an unwary questioner found out who raised the subject at tonight’s Q&A), because it’s about women in their 20s in semi-bohemian Brooklyn, but Frances is considerably less perverse and, frankly, less extraordinary.  Yet it’s a charming piece of work, one that combines the loose-limbed feel of mumblecore (where Gerwig got her start) with tightly-scripted dialogue and a more elaborate, far-reaching structure than you’d initially expect.  The superb technical credits include beautiful black & white photography by Sam Levy that (deliberately) harkens back to the Woody Allen films of the 1970s and 1980s.  The depiction of the friendship between Frances and Sophie is superb, and for Gerwig, this could well be the breakout role she’s been circling around for the past few years.

Kristen Wiig had her breakout movie with Bridesmaids, and Imogene seems to be an attempt to broaden her appeal beyond that and SNL as an actress who can carry a more dramatic role.  Wiig is fine, and manages for the most part to avoid sketch-comedy exaggeration.  But the tone of Imogene is all over the place, from dysfunctional family indie to rom-com to pure silliness..  Imogene was a girl raised in New Jersey who couldn’t wait to get out; after her father’s abrupt exit from her life, she was raised by wacky single mom Zelda (Annette Bening), who’s a low-rent gambling addict and whose life-in lover (Matt Dillon) claims to be a secret CIA agent.  Imogene’s brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) buries his social terror in a fascination with crabs and the shells they can pull over themselves for protection.  Imogene herself dreamed of being a playwright, but that never happened, and now she’s holding on to her New York life by her fingernails, with a long-term boyfriend who really doesn’t care about her, and supposed friends who look down on her.  When she loses it all in quick succession, and stages a fake suicide attempt to bring her boyfriend back, she ends up being put into her mother’s custody, and has to live again with all the people she despises most–plus Lee (Darren Criss), the Backstreet Boys impersonator who rents her old bedroom.

Naturally, before the movie ends, Imogene will have learned a lesson or three about family and who really cares about her, and she’ll find real romance along the way.  The way the film gets there, though, while probably meant to be lovably wacky in the way of Little Miss Sunshine, goes over the line into dumb, over-the-top contrivance that leaves any real emotions stranded.  It’s a movie that was badly in need of a rewrite.

There was, in fact, a third film today about a woman struggling with love and society–but that was Anna Karenina, a rather differeent kettle of domestic dissatisfaction that needs to be dealt with separately…


Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."