***1/2 out of ****
Only months after the release of the very funny While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach already has another film - this time returning for another collaboration with his girlfriend, actress/writer Greta Gerwig, with whom he made Frances Ha.”
I feel as though Baumbach is entering a stage where he’s aiming for a broader audience and I like this. His celebrated early films like The Squid and the Whale earned him acclaim, but they were so steeped in the world of problems faced by upper-class academics, that they could be a little alienating.
His older films also had an atmosphere of bitter realism, but Mistress America, like his last movie, seems to exist somewhere between the unflattering realistic details and dry humor often seen in indie films; and the absurd scenarios usually found in big budget comedies.
If there’s one conventional trope Gerwig and Baumbach thankfully dodge in this middle area, it is the warm-hearted manipulative score that gets applied to so many comedies. The two clearly have an affinity for eighties-style synth-pop music, which helps to enliven this film.
The story follows an aspiring writer, named Tracy (Lola Kirke), beginning her freshman year at a New York’s Barnard University and having a tough time finding a place among the students. She finds brief romantic interest in a fellow writing student (Matthew Shear), who then strangely starts dating someone else, just as they start becoming close. Out of loneliness, Tracy, whose mother is engaged, chooses to meet her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who resides in Manhattan.
Upon their meet in Times Square the film picks up the manic pace of the ADHD socialite that is Brooke. Tracy’s fascination with Brooke is rather instant even if it’s obvious what a mess she is. When Brooke is around, her dialogue is rapid and often lacks any sense of direction, as she often says things like, “I wasn’t brought up that way,” to justify her objection to anything - whether the reasoning makes sense or not. Tracy acquires valuable writing material as words constantly spill from the mouth of this silly thirty-year-old.
The entire time I watched the movie, I found myself wondering if Baumbach might have improved the film by using a brighter aesthetic than his trademark dim and de-saturated look. Somehow, it’s easier to accept dialogue that’s more fun than realistic, if the look of the movie feels a little removed from reality as well.
The movie’s fun spirit climaxes at a strange point when all the characters find themselves in a large house for a long duration of the film, which takes the tone of an absurd one-act farce. It’s an amusing section, but it also feels like a movie (or play) of its own.
The cast is great. Kirke (who may possess one of the prettiest sad-looking faces I’ve ever seen) made a great impression last year, as a sleazy Ozarks thief in Gone Girl. Her beautiful straight-faced screen presence is a wonderful contrast to Gerwig’s wide-eyed obnoxiously cute shtick.
Overall, Mistress America is a fun, dialogue-heavy comedy that suffers a little from minor structural and stylistic flaws. I recommend it because it represents a lot of value that seems to be deteriorating from most comedy movies, whether they’re independent or mainstream.