Monday, September 07, 2015

Mistress America

MISTRESS AMERICA (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

In MISTRESS AMERICA eighteen-year-old Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is having trouble fitting in as a freshman at Barnard College, so she’s relieved to find someone to hang out with in New York City when she meets thirty-year-old stepsister-to-be Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig). Brooke appears to live a glamorous urban life and dabble in seemingly everything. She works as an interior designer and SoulCycle instructor, came up with a t-shirt design that she claims her friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) stole, is kicking around an idea for a television show, and is entertaining investors for a restaurant she plans to open.

When Brooke’s boyfriend pulls out of the restaurant deal, she is in desperate need of financing. Prompted by a fortune teller, Brooke goes to Greenwich, Connecticut with Tracy, her friend Tony (Matthew Shear), and his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) in tow to make a pitch for money to her wealthy ex-fiancĂ© Dylan (Michael Chernus), who’s married to her nemesis Mamie-Claire.

The soon-to-be sisters in MISTRESS AMERICA are simpatico in sarcasm and self-obsession. Their conversations consist of pathological feedback loops in which they speak disparagingly of those not of their caliber or who have wronged them in some way. Brooke spots a captive audience to dazzle in Tracy, probably because she has not bore witness to Brooke’s trail of professional flameouts. Tracy enjoys being around Brooke, who is fun, brash, and accepting of her company even as she doesn’t seem to listen, but in her the literature major also discovers a rich source of inspiration for the thinly fictionalized short story she has started writing. Both yearn to make their marks on the world. The comedy comes from the symbiotic relationship between these miserable people searching for the answers, reassuring each other of their superiority, and yet failing to achieve their dreams. They can virtually complete each other’s sentences, not so much from closeness but because of their shared disdain.

Gerwig plays Brooke as a force of nature, the type of person who becomes the center of attention in whatever situation she finds herself in. The character is a marked contrast from her notable roles in GREENBERG and FRANCES HA, her previous collaborations with director Noah Baumbach. As in those films Gerwig plays a young woman seeking where she belongs, but in MISTRESS AMERICA, which she co-wrote with Baumbach, she’s a screwball egotist. In a strange way she remains a sympathetic figure because her big talk is clearly indicative of compensating for feeling inferior.

Baumbach has always been very good at guiding actors to convey his caustic wit. With MISTRESS AMERICA he demonstrates a deft ability for choreographing farce. Relationships are tested after Brooke and company barge into Mamie-Claire and Dylan’s home and bring most of the film’s second half to a furious pace powered by incidents and accusations. The speed with which these scenes move relate to the flurry of distractions the protagonists bury themselves in to make it easier to ignore the failure of their pursuits. As unbecoming as Brooke and Tracy’s behavior can be, MISTRESS AMERICA emerges as a funny film about the painful path to maturity through accepting one’s shortcomings and committing to being a better person.

Grade: B

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