Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)
Much of Mistress America is all a blur – much like its poster (above) – at least in terms of coherence. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) plays Brooke, the future step-sister of our protagonist, Tracy (played by relative newcomer Lola Kirke – sister of “Girls” co-star Jemima Kirke – and most recently of Free the Nipple), a lonely first-year Barnard College student. Since Tracy has (for some reason) trouble making friends – though she sort of connects with fellow writing nerd Tony (a funny, heretofore unknown Matthew Shear) – she decides to call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry. She’s heard that Brooke is something of a free spirit, and that turns out to be an understatement: manically unstable would be a better description. Tracy is both mesmerized by, and skeptical of, Brooke’s bubbly babble. She decides to use Brooke’s (mis)adventures as fodder for the story (entitled “Mistress America”) she hopes will gain her access to Barnard’s prestigious literary society . Soon, though, she finds herself caught up in a Connecticut-bound road trip with Brooke, Tony (he’s the one with the car) and Tony’s very unwilling girlfriend Nicolette (an also funny, also heretofore unknown Jasmine Cephas Jones). The ostensible goal of the trip is to allow Brooke to reconnect with an old flame and the woman who stole him (Brooke claims), so that said ex can give her money for a restaurant development (the latest in a series of failed ventures) she has planned. Things don’t go anyone’s way, but many lessons are learned. Some fun is had. The end.
If you liked Frances Ha – the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young) and Gerwig – and/or enjoy movies about “manic pixie dream girls,” then chances are you’ll like this movie more than I did. If, on the other hand, you find Gerwig to be as much of a blight on current independent cinema as do I, then stay away. What’s wrong with Gerwig? Only the fact that there’s nothing new or fresh in her performances that Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) didn’t already show us in the 1970s. It was funny then; less so, now.
But Mistress America is not an entire loss. The younger actors are quite appealing, and some of the writing in those college scenes does, in fact, surprise. But when co-scenarists Gerwig and Baumbach turn their attention to the character who is supposed to be the creative heart of the movie, their imagination fails and they recycle tired tropes. This is especially ironic given the constant press about how Gerwig – the director’s real-life paramour – is Baumbach’s muse. In their particular case, I would avoid mixing business and pleasure.