Review: Mistress America
PLOT: A lonely college freshman (Lola Kirke) is befriended by her older, soon-to-be step-sister (Greta Gerwig) and becomes enamored with her bohemian lifestyle.
REVIEW: Noah Baumbach has a gift in that he can somehow make characters that on the surface are selfish and often insufferable, somehow compelling and more-often-than-not lovable. He's done this over and over, with maybe only FRANCIS HA being the exception, as that character wasn't selfish at all, just naive. Re-teaming with his muse Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote as well) MISTRESS AMERICA's Brooke is like a nightmare version of Frances. They're similar in that they lack purpose, but where Frances was in-tune enough to realize she had to be proactive in achieving her dreams, Brooke is anything but. She wants it all and she wants it given to her – now!
Yet, as exasperating as she is, Brooke is oddly likable despite the fact that she has very little in the way of redeeming features. So much credit is due to Gerwig, who has such an innate likability that she's probably the only one who could have ever gotten away with playing a character like this (who makes the ladies from GIRLS seem like the model of restraint and compassion). She's not bad, she's just self-obsessed and entitled to the point of mania. Yet, her unearned confidence makes her a fascinating muse for Kirke's Tracy, who begins to use Margot's stream-of-consciousness ravings as the inspiration for a roman-a-clef which she hope will gain her entree to a high-regarded literary magazine on campus. So in her own way, Margot is a victim of her own mania.
It's crazy how much of a roll the late-blooming Baumbach is on these days. Having started off in the nineties with a couple of indies (the highlight being 1995's KICKING AND SCREAMING) he found his groove with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and hasn't gone wrong yet. MISTRESS AMERICA hits Sundance only four months after his WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, the most broadly commercial film of his career, played TIFF. MISTRESS AMERICA is just as accessible although it's a bit more daring in its technique. While shot in dazzling color as opposed to FRANCIS HA's monochrome, he takes a lot of risks with the way the movie plays out.
A full-third of the film takes place in the home of Brooke's self-declared nemesis, playing out like a sort of parlor-room screwball comedy, as if he's channeling Ernst Lubitsch (I like my Turner Classic Movies). Characters enter and exit like in a stage-bound romp, and it's entirely dialogue driven, with tons of plot lines criss-crossing over each other to the point that it becomes almost unbearably funny, as so much is going on there's no relief. It works really well, but it also feels like something Baumbach couldn't have tried with the more commercially ambitious WHILE WE'RE YOUNG.
Having been picked up by Fox Searchlight, MISTRESS AMERICA will likely make a big arthouse splash within the next few months, and should earn both Gerwig and newcomer Lola Kirke rave reviews. While he's not quite Woody Allen yet, Baumbach does feel like the closest thing to a contemporary version of him that we've gotten so far. One great movie in a year would have been one hell of an accomplishment. Two great movies within four months of each other is almost unheard of these days. Here's hoping he stays as prolific, as his movies are such a delight to watch.