Director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer and star Greta Gerwig walk a wobbly tightrope between contemporary satire and old-school Hollywood farce in Mistress America. Continuing a collaboration that began five years ago with Greenberg and then paid rich creative dividends in Frances Ha, they’ve now come up with a girl-bonding-and-breaking tale that simultaneously feels tossed off and minutely choreographed in its comic timing. There are many humorous and social morsels to enjoy here, although they’re of rather disposable quality. More problematic for many viewers may be the overpowering verbal torrent unleashed by Gerwig’s force-of-nature Manhattan scenester as well as the viciousness with which some of the female characters attack one another. This Fox Searchlight release will be a tricky sell outside of key big-city markets.
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Structurally, the film resembles countless works from The Great Gatsby on down that are told from the point of view of a relative greenhorn captivated by a larger-than-life figure. As is often the case with such stories, the audience’s perspective is controlled by a writer or, more correctly put, an aspiring writer, as Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old just entering college in Manhattan whose first stab at joining the school’s elite Mobius Literary Society is firmly rejected.
Attractive but a bit odd and socially on the outs, Tracy finds her life leapfrogging into another dimension once she phones Brooke (Gerwig), whose father Tracy’s mother has decided to marry. Brooke commands her to meet in Times Square and, in short order, Tracy is overcome with a gush of incessant chatter that flows from Brooke like the torrents over Niagara. Brooke unloads a year’s worth of ideas, opinions, ambitions, and plans over the course of one evening as she leads her young new best friend to a succession of hot spots and parties, where she seems to know everyone. On top of all this, Brooke leads a kick-ass spin class in the morning.
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The gist of it all is that — with the help of her would-be rich boyfriend Stavros, who’s off in Greece — Brooke intends to open a wonderful restaurant called Mom’s that will be a home away from home for all the best people forever and ever. However, when Stavros abruptly backs out — oh yes, the Greek economy is having some trouble, isn’t it? — Brooke has to come up with $75,000 by Monday.
No problem. Brooke corrals a gang that includes Tracy, her college literary buddy Tony (Matthew Shear) and the latter’s severely possessive girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), to caravan up to Greenwich, where she’ll wheedle the money out of her loaded old pal Dylan (Michael Chernus).
At this point, Mistress America pivots from being a loose-limbed girl-talk movie that rambles all over New York City to a stylized housebound social comedy that may feature the fastest spoken dialogue in an American film since Howard Hawks‘ His Girl Friday or Peter Bogdanovich‘s They All Laughed. Bulldozing her way into Dylan’s ultra-sleek, modern mansion, where a book group consisting of nothing but pregnant women are gathered to reconsider the merits of William Faulkner, Brooke must first contend with her friend’s harridan of a wife (Heather Lind), who hates her. For sheer monstrousness, however, she is rivaled by Nicolette, who at every moment suspects Tracy of trying to steal Tony away.
But once the affable Dylan finally shows up and listens to Brooke’s pitch, Nicolette nails Tracy to the wall by exposing her so-called literary betrayal of Brooke, which instantly ruptures their relationship. The negative and destructive energy expended by women against other women here is quite something to behold, and because it’s done in such an archly artificial style merely serves to exaggerate its effect.
The follow-up scenes, as well as the eventual coda, are accomplished in a quieter, more naturalistic manner that takes the edge off and resolves things on a basically satisfying, quasi-poignant note. But the inconsistency of the approach overall, combined with Gerwig’s maximum voltage performance, is disconcerting, even off-putting, making Mistress America rather less charming and inviting than might have been intended.
Tracy is an intentionally passive and reactive figure, which puts real limits on what Kirke, who recently impressed as Greta in Gone Girl, can do here. But toward the end, she emerges from opaqueness into a newly self-assertive phase, which is to the good all around.
The film has nothing if not great vitality and an active creative spirit, but it has all been channeled here in a way that comes off as erratic and sometimes ill-judged.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Opens: 2015 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: RT Features
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung, Kathryn Erbe, Dean Wareham
Producers: Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Rodrigo Teixeira, Greta Gerwig
Executive producers: Lourenco Sant’anna, Sophie Mas
Director of photography: Sam Levy
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips
Casting: Douglas Aibel