Mark Reviews Movies

Mistress America


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Jasmine Cephas Jones

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 8/14/15 (limited); 8/21/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 20, 2015

About midway through Mistress America, a one-act, screwball chamber comedy commences. There's something a bit off about it. That's not necessarily because it's a massive tonal shift from the rest of the movie, which, on either side of this extended centerpiece sequence, is still a comedy. Granted, it's a far more subdued comedy about the relationship between a pair of women—one a lonely college freshman and the other a struggling entrepreneur with no set direction in her life—trying to make it in New York City. Once these characters leave the city for a palatial house in Connecticut, everything about them and the comic approach almost instantly intensifies.

If one knows the sort of comedy that's being referenced in the opening sentence, the approach to this lengthy act of the story should be obvious. The dialogue comes at a rat-a-tat pace. The actors don't allow even the space of a breath between the delivery of one line and the response. While hitting those lines one after another, everyone is acting for the balcony. There's a sense of verbal chaos, as multiple and sometimes conflicting or unrelated threads of conversation alternate over the course of an exchange. Characters jump into dialogue exchanges at random or just abandon the scene once their purpose has been served.

From a purely technical standpoint, this section of the movie is effectively staged by co-writer/director Noah Baumbach and performed by his actors. Everyone knows the game and understands how to play it. Beyond the amusement of watching a modern filmmaker approach something old-fashioned with gusto, though, this isn't funny. It feels like a technical exercise.

The heart of this thing is absent. A major part of that deficiency comes from one element: the character who indirectly lends her name to the movie. Her name is Brooke, and she's probably on the short list of the most insufferable people in the five boroughs.

Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays Brooke, and if the point is that we're supposed to find her disagreeable, then the actress has fully achieved her goal—and then some, since the character is almost instantly obnoxious. That is, to an extent, the point, although it's also clear that Baumbach and Gerwig do want us to find some redemptive quality to the character. That's a much harder sell, and it doesn't help that the movie has to erupt into high-energy comic antics in order to make her seem reasonable in the aftermath.

Fortunately, Brooke isn't the focal point here. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is. She's starting her college life at her backup school. No one notices her. She sits alone for meals. She isn't invited to dorm parties. Tony (Matthew Shear), a guy from one of her classes, seems interested in her for a bit, but he ends up dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Tracy's mother suggests that she contact Brooke, who will be Tracy's future step-sister. After the disappointment with Tony, she does.

Brooke's life is one big delusion. She doesn't realize it, and she's also certain that everyone wants to hear whatever she has to say at any given moment, no matter the topic of conversation at hand. Yes, she's that annoying, but for some reason beyond mere association, Tracy admires her future step-sister.

Brooke is also convinced that one of her many ideas, which she happily shares across social media, will translate into success, but she doesn't care to put any of them into practice. Her current plan is to open a restaurant/salon/community center with her boyfriend, who breaks up with her after he sees a photo of her kissing another guy online.

Brooke's last resort, according to her psychic advisor, is to seek the help of Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), an ex-friend who made it rich on one of Brooke's ideas, and her husband Dylan (Michael Chernus), one of Brooke's ex-boyfriends, whom Mamie-Claire "stole." Brooke, Tracy, Tony, and Nicolette take a road trip to the couple's home so that Brooke can pitch her idea.

All of this information seems to exist solely to set the stage for the allegedly wacky escapades at the house. The structure and style of the setpiece are right, but it feels forced, especially since Tracy, who is a sympathetic character, takes to sidelines in favor of Brooke, who is most especially not. The climax to whole ordeal turns out to be a crammed-in critique of so-called "politically correct culture," since Tracy has written a story with a character inspired by Brooke, and it feels almost as divorced from the sequence as the sequence feels from the rest of the movie.

Mistress America is a fairly significant misfire. It's trying too hard, which might be why it falls so flat.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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