Monday, August 24, 2015

Mistress America (**1/2)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach's image of New York is as romantic as Woody Allen, but he's willing to admit that there are cracks on the infamous visage. He does not treat New York as a place that can do no wrong, and usually the blame falls at the hands of people. There are terrible people all over the world, but Baumbach seems to have an understanding that New York City has a way of producing the kind of terrible people on all levels and classes. His latest Greta Gerwig collaboration, Mistress America, is basically a spiritual cousin to their previous, Frances Ha. Ha was shot in black and white, alluded often to the French New Wave, and showed Gerwig as a twenty-something whose entire idyllic Park Slope existence goes down the toilet when her roommate moves out. Mistress America ponders what would have happened Ha's protagonist were more manipulative, was able to spin her fable of a lifestyle into at least partial success. In Mistress America, Gerwig's Brooke is the quintessential, millennial New York Girl: in her thirties but still single, getting by on a variety of patched together version of employments, and living in a space marked as commercial. She's literally living out a fantasy of most twenty-first century white kids, and yet she still has room for unhappiness. Of course she does, it's a Noah Baumbach movie.

Mistress America's protagonist is actually Tracy (Lola Kirke), a somber, shy college freshman starting her first semester in a private women's liberal arts college in upper Manhattan. After weeks of tepid attempts at trying to make friends or find a place in her scarily new home, all she gets is a rejection from the campus literary magazine, a crush on a boy named Tony (Matthew Shear) who then immediately finds another girlfriend, and numerous nights alone. In Thanks giving, Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is getting remarried, and Tracy is urged to call Brooke (Gerwig), the daughter of her soon to be new husband. She's cool, her mother explains, she's in her thirties, living in Manhattan as an independent woman. Tracy only agrees when she's exhausted all other options. Brooke enthusiastically agrees to meet Tracy in Time Square where they cavort through various eateries, see a band downtown and spend the night in Brooke's loft apartment. Tracy is immediately smitten, seduced by Brooke's freewheeling life, her constant pontification on how to live in the city and various statements of self-aggrandizement ("I recently learned I'm an autodidact... It's one of the words I self-taught myself."). Brooke possesses a self-absorption that is powerfully infectious, that brings others toward her, and Tracy is caught blind in the fly trap.

The holes in Brooke's lifestyle are quick to show themselves, but Tracy is either unable or unwilling to see them. Having faced a lonely semester at college, she's more than willing to subjugate herself to Brooke's wishes in exchange for the glowing attention and the closeness to adult womanhood. Brooke appears stable, on the verge of landing investors for a utopian restaurant idea, but it soon becomes apparent that her connections are tenuous, mostly hinging on a boyfriend named Stavos who's never around, and it becomes obvious in very little time, that despite Brooke's effortless popularity, Tracy might be the only true friend that she actually has. Tracy is so intoxicated by Brooke's life that she starts transcribing quotes and moments into a thinly veiled piece of fiction, crafting a story which she thinks is a glorification but is really a satirical tear down, and one she wouldn't show Brooke in a million years. Tracy's relationship with Tony is strained as well when his new girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) reveals herself to be the chronically jealous type. Tensions come to a head when Brook decides to take Tracy, Tony and Nicolette along with her to have a surprising drop-in on a former best friend, Mimi Claire (Heather Lind), who also happens to be married to her rich, former fiance, Dylan (Michael Chernus).  Having lost her main financier for the restaurant, Brooke is now resorting to begging for cash from former friends, but what follows is a madcap afternoon in which all parties are revealed for who they are.

This is the point in Mistress America where a third of the film devolves into a screwball comedy unlike anything else that appears previous. The dialogue becomes fast, choreographed between the numerous characters, even absurd at certain points. This is also the moment you realize that these kinds of films have nothing much else to say. Frances Ha had the luxury of being essentially plot less, as unorganized as its lead protagonist, but Mistress America really does try to be a story. A story of coming of age, but also a story about millennials and the quickly shifting views about the American family in 2015. There's still a lot to say about all these topics, but Baumbach and Gerwig (and many, many others) seem to be interested only in how it affects middle-to-upper class white people. The film's sole black character, Brooke's downstair's neighbor Kawhi, is so underplayed (and the actor's name seems completely scrubbed from the internet as well) that he barely even has any speaking lines. His silence is played for laughs, but it's one of the film's loudest moments. Mistress America is best in it's first half, watching Tracy slowly come under Brooke's spell against her own better judgment. Tracy is smart and pretty, and doesn't understand how this doesn't translate to her being happier or more popular. The way Gerwig's script and Baumbach's taut direction explore this is piercing, funny and honest, but when Brooke enters the film, she takes the rest of the movie along with her.

Baumbach's latest films are to Woody Allen as David O. Russell's latest films are to Martin Scorsese. The derivative nature is so blatant, it's almost charming. Both Baumbach and Allen have this way of crafting these characters that should be so repellant and yet are so watchable. These aren't exactly realistic people, but people we'd like to imagine exist; they're the kind of people F. Scott Fitzgerald would have written about. The introduction of Gerwig into Baumbach's cinematic universe has given the filmmaker a certain lightness that was much needed after three straight films in the mid-2000s of various quality (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) that seemed to almost choke on their anger. Perhaps he's happier now. If he isn't, his films surely are. Frances Ha stands with Squid and the Whale as his very best. Both films appreciated their humor, instead of settling for it as a way to decrease the tension. Baumbach's other film this year, While We're Young, was another take on millennialism through the eyes of middle age. That film was less forgiving, less willing to delve into various film genres for yucks. It's probably why it's the stronger film, even if it's still isn't great. But Mistress America still does have the performances from Gerwig and Kirke, two actresses with disparate comedic abilities on display, which makes the film a fun ride despite attempts to derail it.

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