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.
Tracy has literary aspirations; she fancies herself a writer of short stories. Indeed, she narrates portions of this film in candid voice-over, as if reading aloud from a particularly insightful monograph, her mordant observations adding spice to the on-screen litany of disappointments and rejections.
Back home, Tracy’s mother is about to marry anew, to a man with a 30-year-old daughter who lives in Manhattan; Mom suggests that Tracy get in touch with this stepsister-to-be. That would be Brooke (Gerwig), a dazzling breath of fresh air who’s simply delighted to take Tracy under her far more experienced wing.
To the naïve and impressionable Tracy, Brooke couldn’t be more exciting. She lives illegally in a charming and spacious apartment. She chatters excitedly about her soon-to-open bistro/art gallery/hair salon/community center, which she plans to call Mom’s (as in “I’m going to Mom’s tonight”). She sings in a band; she leads a workout club; she’s full of adventure.
Tracy doesn’t seem to notice Brooke’s excessively narcissistic side, or the endless stream of breezy non-sequiturs that she passes off as conversation, or the fact that she acknowledges other people only when it suits her. Or how loftily amused she is, to have a “child” to show off, like a puppy.
Who cares? She’s fun ... certainly more fun than the dull class work, or being around Tony (Matthew Shear), the shy guy that Tracy fancied, who has saddled himself with the obsessively jealous Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones).
(One does wonder how Tracy avoids flunking out, since she soon spends all of her time with Brooke.)
But if Brooke is exhilarating, she’s also a full-time chore: a ditzy guru whom Tracy feels compelled to support, even as the demands become more unreasonable. No surprise: The foundation upon which Brooke has built her life turns out to be quicksand, a series of setbacks climaxing with the sudden withdrawal of a key investor in her dream business venture.
This prompts a road trip to Connecticut — Tony driving, Nicolette along to ensure his fidelity — and a reunion with former BFF Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who, back in the day, stole one of Brooke’s earlier fab business ideas and her wealthy boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus). Not to mention Brooke’s two cats.
At which point, Baumbach’s film goes completely off the rails.
The extended sequence in Dylan and Mamie Claire’s opulent mansion just gets worse, as it runs on and on and on and on. All pretense of credible characterization and “real” behavior is tossed out the window, everybody adopting the random, extemporaneous, kitchen-sink attitude one expects from high school acting exercises.
It all defies description, particularly when a pregnant tax attorney agrees to represent Brooke in a defamation lawsuit against Tracy, who based her most recent short story on her time thus far with her new stepsister.
Baumbach and Gerwig apparently intend this lengthy second act to be the height of slapstick farce. It’s simply stupid. And needlessly protracted.
Things eventually return to earth during a rather sweet epilogue, but by this point it’s much too little, much too late.
OK, we get it: This film’s title notwithstanding, this is Tracy’s story, not Brooke’s. And, yes, Kirke’s performance is sufficiently nuanced — when it’s allowed to be — that we observe the transformation from shy suburban mouse, to newly minted city mouse who unwisely mimics the wrong person, to self-assured college student who confidently sets about blazing her own trail.
And good for her: For the most part, we’re on Tracy’s side throughout, and Kirke makes a reasonably sympathetic protagonist.
Shear also does solid work as the earnest, too easily dominated Tony; he is this film’s other “authentic” individual. He’s a genuinely nice guy, made endearing by Shear’s sincere and understated performance.
Which is in great contrast to Lind and Chernus, whose Mamie Claire and Dylan are unappealing fruit bats. As is Cephas-Jones’ hyper-resentful Nicolette, who is prone to vulgar outbursts that couldn’t be more off-putting. Not to mention Cindy Cheung’s Karen — the aforementioned pregnant tax attorney — who’s just plain weird. As is Dean Wareham, in a bewildering role as the guy who lives next door to Mamie Claire and Dylan.
It’s impossible to imagine what Baumbach and Gerwig had in mind, as their film veers wildly from heartfelt tenderness to Marx Brothers madness. Tracy’s sweet, even poignant coming-of-age saga is buried beneath a parade of grotesques masquerading as friends and acquaintances.