2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.28.15
Noah Baumbach’s films are like Off-Broadway plays.
The settings are stage-y, the atmosphere mannered and theatrical; all conversations are forced and confrontational; people rarely speak calmly, instead gesticulating wildly and declaiming to an invisible back row. The dialog is florid and far wittier than anything we’d hear in actual life, the characters at times waiting on each other, in the manner of actors not entirely certain of their cues.
We eagerly await each retort, certain it will be particularly clever or scathing.
In the context of a true stage experience, we expect — even admire — such heightened reality. We appreciate the embroidered performances, smile knowingly during verbal duels designed to convey implied or blatant messages, pleased when we “get” the playwright’s intended moral.
Off-Broadway, we’re inclined to forgive the artifice.
In a movie theater, I find it exhausting.
The character played by Greta Gerwig in Mistress America is artificial: a vehicle designed solely to showcase her thespic skills. She sighs, smiles, chatters nervously, flutters about and behaves like a cattle-call actress trying much too hard to impress. Which is, I acknowledge, the nature of her character ... but that’s not a sufficient excuse for performance overkill.
To be sure, Gerwig is fun to watch. She delights and dazzles, even — sometimes particularly — when her character’s behavior slides into wretched excess. But it’s hard to wrap a conventional storyline around such a deliberately flamboyant scene-stealer.
Knowing that Gerwig co-wrote the script, with Baumbach, makes this film a rather blatant vanity project. That Baumbach, as director, so blithely tolerates his leading lady’s excesses, can be attributed to their having been an off-camera item since 2011, while making Frances Ha. (They also worked together on 2010’s Greenberg.)
And I dearly hope they’ve gotten this big-screen Mutual Admiration Society out of their systems.
That said, Mistress America opens well, its first act a credible and painfully accurate indictment of the college scene, as experienced by the disenfranchised. Tracy (Lola Kirke) begins her freshman year at a Manhattan college with expectation and enthusiasm, both of which are smooshed during a brief montage that catalogs every indignity and beat-down endured by those not quite certain of their place in life.
The hostile roommate. The boring and pretentious classes. The ghastly dining commons food. The miasma of quiet desperation that filters through the dorm hallway. The tentative crush who, a few days later, pops up with a new girlfriend.
The PTSD flashback was almost enough to send me screaming from the theater.