Mistress America (2015) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 84 min.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Charlie Gillette, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Michael Chernus,
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Review published December 8, 2015
Greta Gerwig (To Rome with Love, Damsels in Distress) plays yet another of her many quirky riffs on the same millennial character she seems to always play on film. It's just more of it in Mistress America, starring as Brooke, a young woman with big ambitions to make something of herself as a restaurateur in Manhattan, but finds that just willing things into existence doesn't always make you a success. A misfit Barnard College freshman with literary ambitions named Tracy Fishko (Kirke, Gone Girl) is set to become her stepsister when her mother is engaged to marry Brooke's father, and she wants to meet her new family and hang out for a bit with her, and make a new friend. After getting to know each other, Tracy becomes extremely enamored of social butterfly Brooke, as she becomes a new role model for everything she wants to be in life. A burgeoning writer, Tracy begins to compile their adventures and misadventures into a short fictional narrative, striving to understand this enigmatic but captivating woman from the inside out.
Perhaps I don't understand actress Greta Gerwig's allure as an actress or as a writer, as I've yet to find much of her output to be cohesive, much less funny. Her boyfriend Noah Baumbach (When We're Young, The Squid and the Whale), whose films I generally do enjoy, continues to direct and co-write her screenplays, and while they are certainly offbeat, they are so scattershot, and full of characters both whimsical and artificial, that I am at a loss to understand who these people are I'm watching and what, if anything, I'm supposed to be amused by in their madcap antics. The lack of authenticity in these characters, who are seemingly spun merely to amuse and come up with quotable lines, is what makes Mistress America a chore to sit through for anyone who isn't completely enthralled by Gerwig and her many characters who are seemingly built as satellites around her for which to do her usual shtick.
The final act of the film, set in a large and expensive home in Connecticut, attempts to go for old-timey farce, with Brooke having to nearly perform soft-shoe for a chance at the seed money to bring her dream restaurant to life. It's so unfunny in execution that it feels reminiscent of early Kevin Smith at his most amateurish (see Mallrats for a comparison) if his films were cast with snooty hipsters. Gerwig and Baumbach feels so assured that they're making something witty that they practically cram cleverness down your throat, not only unconcerned about whether we get their wavelength or not, but it remains a question as to whether they get it either. It also doesn't help matters that Gerwig, while quite good at playing a very defined character in a film worthy of her smart but daffy energy, isn't a particularly talented actress outside of her comfort zone. Dialogue has an unnatural, perhaps even pretentious feel as soon as Gerwig is on the scene, as she doesn't deliver a line until the other person finishes, leaving entire scenes feeling disjointed with each non sequitur line delivered, and entirely stiff in execution.
The best parts of the otherwise spiritually exhausting (even at a meager 84 minutes) Mistress America come from Baumbach's usual bells and whistles, with nice locale work and good cinematography. The soundtrack is catchy as well, though Baumbach continues to lean heavy on the same bands as his previous Gerwig collaboration, Frances Ha, which also features a recurring song by Hot Chocolate. But I think that, where the wispy, nearly insufferable film falls apart is that much of the impetus for character motivation for this film revolves around the fact that most characters seem to be enamored of spoiled and narcissistic Brooke, as if she's a charismatic dynamo who has it all together, and all people around her secretly admire. When I'm thinking that the character is obnoxious, self-absorbed, and without much redeeming value, it makes me question the judgment of the other characters in the movie, as celebrating selfishness above friendships, oddball idiosyncrasies above genuine substance, and unconventional attitudes above integrity leaves us with the feeling that none of these valueless people are worth admiring themselves. It's like celebrity worship without the fame to merit the adulation, and given Brooke has done little but to be a manic oddball without any discernible talent not related to her own self-confidence, Baumbach and Gerwig fail to translate just what makes her worth following, much less worth fawning over.
©2015 Vince Leo