Movie review: Mistress America
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have concocted a screwball story of friendship between two women that finds a beacon of hope in one of life’s lovable losers
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Running time: 84 minutes
By Jay Stone
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are cinema’s creative couple of the moment, and it’s a moment that shows signs of an extended run. Their new collaboration, Mistress America, is a dark and funny comedy of loopy manners that dissects a small corner of young America: the shaggy dreamer who doesn’t quite fit into any of the modern categories (guilty mother, wealthy yuppie, dislocated bohemian, artist of any stripe) that have — come to think of it — animated this kind of screwball fantasy since the glory days of the 1930s.
This makes Mistress America a sort of successor to Frances Ha, the previous Baumbach-Gerwig thingamajig, or Greenberg, their first try at bringing some kind of order to the damaged outsiders who populate Baumbach’s best movies (The Squid and the Whale; Margot at the Wedding.) Gerwig waltzed into the scene from a series of indie successes and brought with her the sort of disconnected and sexy charm that Diane Keaton lent to all those great Woody Allen love letters.
In many ways, Mistress America (co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig) is a showcase for Gerwig’s halting charisma. Her character, Brooke, is an aerobics instructor and would-be restaurateur (although she pronounces the invisible “n;” she’s the kind of woman who says she taught herself what “autodidact” means) with an eccentric magnetism that keeps her from fitting in anywhere or, indeed, from growing up at all. But the screenplay and the performance prompt us both to love her and to empathize with the hopelessness of her yearnings: in case we don’t get the point, someone comments that being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world is a lonely business.
Brooke makes a late entrance into the film. It starts with Tracy (Lola Kirke), a pretty freshman at Barnard College, who comes to New York City to be shunned and confused by big city ways. But Tracy is more than that. She’s an aspiring writer, and although she is rejected by the snobby campus magazine Mobius — whose editors accept manuscripts by raiding the authors’ rooms at night and throwing pies into their faces —we begin to notice her watchful gaze. Like all writers, she’s both agonized and grateful for the material, and Brooke is great material.
Tracy’s divorced mother is about to marry Brooke’s widowed father, so the women connect. Tracy is 18 and Brooke is 30, so they’re just enough apart in age to make Brooke the kind of supercool older sister that Tracy never had. Brooke lives in a hip apartment, dates an exotic Greek businessman whom she hates except that she loves him, and dreams of opening a restaurant called Mom’s — the sort that Nelson Algren advised us never to eat in — that is also a general store, meeting place and boho hangout.
Circumstances demand that Brooke get financial aid from an old acquaintance named Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) whom she describes as her “nemesis” because she stole both her boyfriend and her idea of T-shirts with flowers on them. “Marrying Mamie-Claire would be like buying a cashmere sweater at Old Navy,” Brooke says, a line that is typical of dialogue that is smart, snappy and doesn’t always make exact sense as it shoots by, often to be followed by something better, or deeper. Mistress America piles on the oddities — there’s a long scene in Connecticut that involves Mamie-Claire, the ex-boyfriend, Tracy’s new crush, the crush’s girlfriend, some pregnant women who belong to a book club that discusses Faulkner and an angry pediatrician — but under them thrum some smart ideas that both feint at a cultural deconstruction of these kind of people (what kind?!) and seem gleefully beside the point.
It’s a little too loosy-goosey to really settle into, but who cares, I guess, when Mistress America crams so much fun into its 84 minutes and is so smart — or smart-ass — about it? And Gerwig, who makes her entrance into the film with a gloriously elegant promenade down that grandstand in Times Square, is a true original, an unfocussed beauty who portrays her scattered intelligence with so much charm that you can understand — just as you could with Allen and Keaton — what brought the director into her orbit. She’s mistress America: the movie star we have on the side.
EX-PRESS.COM, September 7, 2015
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