Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Kathryn Erbe, Cindy Cheung.
The films of Noah Baumbach (the semi-autobiographical The Squid And The Whale, etc) are something of an acquired taste. Baumbach is a contemporary of Wes Anderson, and the two share a similar dry wit, cynicism, and a sharp way with pretentious, smart hipster dialogue. Apart from his Greenberg, which was set in California, Baumbach’s films are set in his native New York, and they often have a waspish Woody Allen-like feel to them. Baumbach’s love of French new wave cinema is also obvious, particularly in his 2012 romcom Frances Ha, which was shot in black and white. Mistress America is the eighth feature film for writer/director Baumbach and also marks his third collaboration with his muse and partner Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Gerwig plays Brooke, an impetuous thirtysomething dilettante with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a role she wrote for herself. She is an autodidact and a world class procrastinator – she has lots of bold ideas but has failed to follow through on most of them. She is a restless spirit who seems to enjoy life but has little to show for it. She is still bitter about her former flat mate and nemesis Marie Claire (Heather Lind) who not only stole her big ideas but, more egregiously, her pet cats.
Brooke is contacted by her soon to be sister-in-law Tracy (newcomer Lola Kirke, from Gone Girl, etc), a lonely and alienated freshman student at Barnard University in Manhattan, who is also an aspiring writer. The two hang out together for a while, and Tracy is soon swept up in Brooke’s ebullient lust for life and whirlwind lifestyle. Intrigued by Brooke’s lifestyle and her manic energy, Tracy starts writing a novel featuring a thinly disguised Brooke as the central character, a book she calls Mistress America (hence the film’s title). The relationship between Brooke and Tracy is akin to that between Nick Galloway and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, one that starts off with an idealistic view of the character and their lifestyle, but soon turns to disillusionment.
Unfortunately though, this hipster “screwball” comedy is not particularly funny nor engaging, and I quickly grew bored with both it and Brooke, despite its relatively brief running time of 84 minutes. The film runs out of inspiration in the second half. Baumbach and Gerwig have created a number of quirky and deeply flawed and insecure characters, whose paths cross during a road trip to upstate Connecticut. However, most of them are eminently forgettable and indeed unlikeable. The film is also visually bland.
Gerwig has a shrill and grating presence and here she is particularly annoying as the unpleasant and narcissistic Brooke. Kirke delivers a nicely nuanced performance as the naive Tracy and makes the most of her biggest screen role to date, almost stealing the film from under the nose of its creator and star.