Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Brooke), Lola Kirke (Tracy), Heather Lind (Mamie Claire), Michael Shear (Tony), Michael Chernus (Dylan), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Nicolette), Cindy Cheung (Karen), Kathryn Erbe (Tracy’s Mom).
There is something lacking in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America that prevents it from being as good as it could have been – and it’s difficult to quite put my finger on what it is. Once again, it teams Baumbach up with Greta Gerwig – his off-screen girlfriend – who is as always a delight to watch as a performer, and who as Baumbach’s co-writer seems to counteract his more natural cynicism and bitterness. It also has a wonderful performance by relative newcomer Lola Kirke – who is really the lead of the movie – and who matches Gerwig every step of the way, which isn’t easy. In fact, all of the performances in the film are quite good. I think where the movie ultimately fails, a little bit, is the pacing – which just doesn’t keep up. Baumbach is trying to make a screwball comedy here – but the movie doesn’t quite zing the ways it needs to – especially when we get to the second half of the movie, where we are stuck, along with the characters, in a big house out in Connecticut. This sequence has some of the films best moments to be sure – but it really does drag the movie to a halt, especially when people start monologuing. The movie is only 84 minutes – but it feels a longer. These problems don’t quite sink the film – but it comes close.
The film stars Kirke as Tracy – an 18-year old University student, in her first semester, in New York City, who wants to be a writer, but isn’t sure she’s any good at it. She also has trouble making friends – and ends up spending most of her time alone. Her mother is getting married over Thanksgiving weekend, and suggests that Tracy reach out to Brooke (Gerwig), the 30 year old daughter of the man she is marrying, who also lives in the city. Gerwig plays what could be described as a “manic pixie dream girl” – as she is a lifeforce that rejuvenates Tracy when she sucks the younger woman into her world. There’s only one problem with that – Brooke is kind of insufferable – overly self-involved, creative, but flaky – a woman who can make you feel great one moment, and horrible the next. Tracy to a certain extent realizes this – she bases her next short story on Brooke, and is rather merciless in her depiction of Brooke (more so than Baumbach and Gerwig are) – but cannot help but love Brooke anyway. Why? Perhaps because Brooke isn’t really any better.
Baumbach is in familiar territory here – his characters are often like the ones in Mistress America – charming, funny smart and also self-involved assholes. Films like The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010) are all films that mix extreme discomfort with humor – as the main characters do horrible things to each other. Greenberg – which was Baumbach’s first film with Gerwig – did mark a turning point though. His last three films – Frances Ha (2013), While We’re Young (2015) and now Mistress America are similar to his earlier films, but somewhat lighter and breezier – more accessible to be sure, even as they tap into the similar terrain.
For me, Mistress America is the least successful of these films in a while. I think part of the problem is that while Gerwig and Baumbach write two terrific female roles – Brooke and Tracy – they do not really give them anything to do. So they get forced into a kind of superficial plot – where they are drawn together, than ripped apart, than come back together because of a series of contrivances, etc. Gerwig and Kirke are never less than enjoyable to see on screen – and quite often much more than that. But the final half of the movie – where things are going crazy just never quite goes crazy enough. Lots of characters are introduced – and some are interesting, some not so much, and the situation is overly contrived.
Mistress America was a bit disappointing when compared to other Baumbach films to me. It feels like another draft or two at the screenplay stage could have helped a hell of lot. Still, it’s always a pleasure to see Gerwig do her utterly fearless comic performances – and Kirke is terrific as well. They movie doesn’t live up to them – but you have to give it credit for trying.