Mistress America (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Mistress America (2015)

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Tracy's unhappy with her college life.  She can't motivate herself to turn in assignments, is constantly rejected by the school writing society, put down by her dorm mate, and is too late to catch the eye of the one guy she has a connection with.  But when Tracy's mom announces her 2nd marriage Tracy meets her sister-to-be, Brooke, and is reinvigorated by Brooke's whirlwind life.  Noah Baumbach directs Mistress America from a script cowritten by Greta Gerwig and stars Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Heather Lind.

Rolling out the red steps

"If I'm not in my body where am I?"
"Five feet to the left and unhappy."

Mistress America arrives as a pleasant surprise from Noah Baumbach, who already made one great comedy earlier this year with While We're Young.  Instead of hanging his story around people his own age he enlisted the help of frequent writing partner Greta Gerwig to write Mistress America and give it that special edge which comes with Gerwig's recent performances.  Those familiar with Baumbach's work, less so his collaborations with Gerwig, will find Mistress America plumbing the same depths of college malaise which gave his Kicking and Screaming such a subtle bite.

Don’t expect the same level of energy though. While Mistress America traffics in the same kind of dry witty banter Baumbach built his career on the energy is on a whole different level. Mistress America might be most accurately defined as a farce, which is funny coming from the guy who wrote his characters to say they had nostalgia for a conversation going on right now. Most of the energy comes from Gerwig who adds a level of zany comedy where literary references once ruled the day.

Those intellectual call backs still make up a good chunk of Mistress America’s dialogue.  I especially enjoyed how a half-wine drinking / half-pregnant women’s reading crew dedicates their reading to “…Faulkner’s The Hamlet and some junky Derrida biography” (Post-structuralists represent!)  While Baumbach doesn’t quite hit the same acidic tone he struck with The Squid and the Whale he still gets a lot of mileage out of seemingly innocuous lines like, “My mom never worked and my dad was kind of mad at her for that.  That means their divorce was a lot easier than what you’re going through.”

Tracy is a bit too much of a Baumbach staple to leave an impression but bdisfrjsadlsda

Lola Kirke's Tracy is a bit too much of a Baumbach staple to leave an impression but plays a solid deadpan to the fire hose of energy that is Greta Gerwig's Brooke.

The plot terrain is now-classic Baumbach as well, and few people know how to make New York look as lovely and lonely as he does. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is caught in a period of arrested development where she knows the steps she can take to move forward but is too interested in others opinions of her to commit.  She’s another well-read, smart as heck, but quietly deceptive Baumbach character I might be bored with if he didn’t write them so well.  A much-needed breath of change comes from Tony (Matthew Shear) and Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), whose relationship involves a lot of hostility and love.  They’re the sort of couple who will be angrily having sex until they are dead or will destroy one another should their relationship end.

Which is another way of saying they’re open about themselves and how their relationship works and Tracy is not. This is what makes Tracy’s soon-to-be-sister Brooke (Gerwig) such an effective powder keg to Tracy’s malaise.  I can’t think of a recent character so fleshed out, sympathetic, and funny as Brooke and Gerwig’s almost manic performance adds to the unique flavor.  Brooke is one of those people whose mind comes up with endless ideas but only 40% of the ability to pull them off successfully and manages potent insights as quickly as she can Tweet them.  Arrogance is a streak which runs through many of Baumbach’s characters and Brooke is refreshingly free of this.

Gerwig goes so fast and comes up with so many ideas it’s easy to see how her Brooke and Robin Williams’ Genie could have an improv-fest and leave the audience gasping. She creates a social chameleon, someone who is able to work high and low society alike because she doesn’t care about the (largely imaginary) difference.  Even with all her energy she makes these transitions in brilliantly subtle ways as she changes clothes on the move and makes small shifts to her speaking pattern for each cultural level.  Gerwig never grates or tires in this role because the shifts always speak to a center of discomfort about what she can accomplish.

The triangle of farce where, for a few minutes, Baumbach strikes comic gold.

The triangle of farce where, for a few minutes, Baumbach strikes comic gold.

Baumbach follows Gerwig’s ferociously energetic Brooke with one of his best comedic sequences. His direction has always been subdued and he stages a total farce of a third act mostly centered on a triangle arrangement around a staircase.  The lines come fast and hilariously from performers as they move into and out of the frame, up and down the stairs, through and away from doors in a grand home.  Everyone’s in a remarkable comic groove, shifting on a dime from accusatory (“Did you take my herb?” as one tries to craft an apple bong), suddenly defensive (“Nope,”) then totally accepting (“I’ll get you an apple.”)  Baumbach’s direction still shines in the subtle moments too, like the way Brooke descends on a staircase like a red carpet to greet Tracy, or when Tracy’s beam of light as she enters Brooke’s workout studio is soon transferred to Brooke as Tracy works out into a ferocious sweat.

Lovely as this all is, I still can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. Malaise-ridden college students and their problems are standard forays for Baumbach at this point and without Gerwig’s Brooke this would be treading much the same ground as While We’re Young.  Even the climaxes are similar with the older confronting the younger generation for aping from their artistry (accidental or intentional) without credit.

Mild feelings of déjà vu aside, Mistress America is still a solid comedy.  Gerwig brightens up Baumbach’s world instead of allowing those characters to wallow.  It’s not as affecting an experience as The Squid and the Whale and not as quietly reassuring as While We’re Young, but Baumbach’s partnership with Gerwig continues to produce great returns and a bit of reassuring philosophy.

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Tail - Mistress AmericaMistress America (2015)

Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Screenplay written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Heather Lind.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Nice write up. I despise this movie though, unfortunately.

    • Hah! Thank you for taking the time to comment all the same. It’s definitely the least of Baumbach’s films but I was in the mood for a total farce and Mistress America fit the need nicely.

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