Mistress America (2015)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Following my review of “While We’re Young,” this is yet another 2015 film from Noah Baumbach that left a weird impression on me—from confusion to praise in a matter of time. Baumbach usually writes his characters as ignorant, self-praising, gullible, and disagreeable. That, plus his biting dialogue, can throw moviegoers off, but when they, like me, can get past that in order to see the characters for who they are and what exactly Baumbach is saying with his direction, there is something fascinatingly insightful about much of his films. (And it also helps that he’s lightened up a little since 2010’s “Greenberg,” probably thanks to his collaboration with co-writer/actress Greta Gerwig.) That’s how I came to enjoy “While We’re Young” and that’s how I came to enjoy “Mistress America.”

If “While We’re Young” was Baumbach’s “Woody Allen film,” then “Mistress America” is both his screwball comedy and his “John Hughes film,” complete with lots of sharp dialogue, revelations about characters, intriguing but unusual detail, and even some unnecessary comic relief and a hollow tempo score.

The main character is a college freshman named Tracy (well-played by Elizabeth Olsen lookalike Lola Kirke), who has trouble fitting in at Columbia University. She feels overwhelmed by the college experience, doesn’t have anyone to talk to or connect with, and isn’t sure of exactly what she wants. She has some idea when she signs up for a campus literary magazine and writes a short story for it, but she’s not so sure she’ll get in. She meets a nice intellectual boy (Matthew Shear), but he gets a girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) soon enough. Then she meets Brooke, who is the daughter of the man Tracy’s mother is going to marry…

Greta Gerwig co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach after working together on “Frances Ha” and stars as Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker who has many ambitions…and will not shut up about them. She talks and talks and talks. She rarely listens to people even when they have something important to say because she’s too busy listening to herself. She wants to be influential and prominent and successful, like most young people aspiring for something great. But also like most young people, she has no clear (or at least realistic) plan to achieve her goals (and for that matter, it’s unclear if she truly has any particular talents anyway). She and Tracy meet due to Tracy’s mother’s insistence and belief that they’ll form a mentor/student relationship. Is she wrong or is she right?

The first few minutes of “Mistress America,” which show Tracy attempting to adjust at college life, are pitch-perfect, showing Baumbach is practically a master at satire, dialogue, and observation. You get the gist of Tracy’s plight by the time the opening credits are done; how often does that happen? It’s funny, observant, and even allows for empathy. As Baumbach showed with “While We’re Young,” his attention to detail is astounding, right down to the cracked screen on Tracy’s cellphone. Then along comes Brooke and the film turns into a madcap comedy, with lots of witty lines, odd attitudinal swings, and eccentricity. Yet the film still keeps a proper amount of authenticity that keeps it intriguing and strangely true.

I can understand why people would be turned off by the character of Brooke. She is constantly babbling about what may or may not happen if/when her dreams come true, and some of her eccentricities (like making up words for herself) are off-putting. A few minutes into getting to know her and you’ll find out pretty quickly whether or not you want to spend another hour with her. (The film itself is pretty short, clocking in at barely an hour and 24 minutes.) As for me, I didn’t have much trouble with her or the way Gerwig portrayed her, but I can see why some critics who panned this film did.

But what’s more interesting is the story with Tracy. She’s the “straight man” to Brooke’s “life force,” but this doesn’t turn out to be as predictable as I expected. There’s a parallel story in which Tracy is taking notes on Brooke’s speech and behavior in order to craft a short story about her (without her knowing it). She believes this story will give herself attention, as she would like to write realistic fiction. What she doesn’t realize is what she knows about Brooke is what she knows from spending only one night with her, and this can be seen as cruelty, especially since it would make Brooke uncomfortable if she reads the final draft. Tracy may know what we have figured out about Brooke, but she has even more to discover about her and about herself as well.

I can’t say the film is entirely realistic. Much of the dialogue can be very stagey, especially when the film takes us to a trip to a house in Connecticut where Brooke hopes to guilt a couple from her past into providing her with funds for a restaurant she’s planning. This whole sequence demonstrates what’s good about the film and what may be flying too close to the sun. (John Hughes, who I referenced in the first paragraph, was guilty of similar problems in his films too.) But there’s enough good in it that it doesn’t damage the film, even with the annoying characters of the deluded boy and his overly jealous girlfriend (who’s so pretentious that even Brooke tells her to stop sounding like an adult) and certain lines of dialogue that I don’t think would be said in real life.

I found “Mistress America” to be a very funny, observant film that shows a definite growth and relaxation in Baumbach’s work, compared to his scathing observations in films such as “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.” I’m excited to see what he comes up with next.

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