September 06, 2015

Noah Baumbauch is too clever for his own good with the gloriously muddled "Mistress America"

There’s something glorious about a movie trying and not quite succeeding. Mistress America is both a delightful and a frustrating mess of a movie. It’s difficult to comprehend exactly what writers Noah Baumbach (who also directed) and Greta Gerwig (who co-stars) were going for in this, their follow-up to the wonderful Frances Ha (2013). The story follows an impressionable, smart, lonely, college student named Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and her strange relationship with Brooke (Gerwig), her step-sister-to-be. Tracy is a burgeoning writer (or so she thinks) studying at Barnard College and trying to break into its snobbish literary circle, which has already rejected one of her stories. Brooke is all over the place. She exudes a kind of whimsical self-determination as she pursues her dreams. And Brooke has a lot of dreams. She wants to open a restaurant. She wants to write, maybe. She had an idea for a line of T-shirts, which her former friend and nemesis, Mamie-Claire, allegedly stole from her. She teaches a spinning class, and she sings with a band, and she tutors middle school students, although she hasn’t been to college. But she wants to go to college, maybe, someday, too.

In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig played a woman who couldn’t get her shit together. I fell in love with that movie and its story of a person in her 20s trying to figure things out and not really succeeding at anything particularly well. Frances Ha put its finger on the pulse of my generation, the millennials (oh, how I despise that word), in a way that felt genuine and truthful and funny. Mistress America is kind of about the same things, but its tone is inconsistent. This movie doesn’t appear to know whether it’s mocking this generation or simply trying to understand them better. Of course, a complex movie can do both, but Mistress America wobbles more than it wonders, and something about its mockish tone feels nasty.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Brooke lives a delusional life, that her great plans are never going to be realized, and that her talk is only talk. Our suspicions are confirmed when Brooke and Tracy decide to visit Brooke’s former friend and current “nemesis” Mamie-Clare (Heather Lind, who’s wonderful in this, and who reminds me of Rose Byrne), who’s married to Brooke’s ex-boyfriend Dylan. The couple live in Greenwich, Connecticut, the epitome of wealthy suburban America, and Brooke needs them to invest in her restaurant because her rich Greek boyfriend Stavros (we never see him) has pulled out of the deal. Tracy convinces her college friend Tony (Matthew Shear) to give them a ride, and Tony’s overly paranoid girlfriend Nicholette tags along. (Nichollette’s fear of Tony cheating on her becomes a pretty amusing running joke.)

The movie crescendos during the extended Greenwich, Connecticut, scene. It’s actually quite funny and clever in a bizarre way, one that feels as though Baumbach were channeling the surrealist humor of French filmmaker Luis Buñuel. (For readers who might not know Buñuel’s work, he often employed a sense of the absurd: His 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about a group of well-to-do French politicians and society people who are always trying to meet for dinner, and never actually partake in a meal because of various increasingly comic and surreal interruptions.) Mistress America doesn’t ever become surreal on the level of Buñuel, but it achieves its own Alice-in-Wonderland level of madness.

When Brooke storms into Mamie-Clare’s fancy house, Mamie-Clare is surprisingly courteous, even though she’s in the middle of a book club with all her fancy Greenwich girlfriends. She invites the foursome into her kitchen to wait till they’re finished, and offers them food and drinks. Tony and Nichollette express a desire to participate in the book club, which is discussing Faulkner’s The Hamlet and a biography of Derrida, and Mamie-Clare consents. All of the women in the book club are well-educated women with blossoming careers and babies on the way. “These pregnant women are really smart!” Tony marvels. And as they’re leaving, he bids each of them goodbye by name. (Again, Nichollette interprets Tony’s friendliness as infidelity, and he protests, “She’s seven months pregnant!”) One of the women, Karen (also pregnant), is waiting for her husband to pick her up, but he never comes. She keeps waiting for him, and is eventually pulled into the drama of the scene, when it’s revealed that Tracy has been using Brooke for “inspiration” for her short story.

Suddenly, the feud between Brooke and Marie-Clare dissipates, and a kind of collective shame-fury focuses on Tracy, who’s forced to let everyone read her story. We cut to a scene of Tracy sitting down with the manuscript in hand, while every single person in the room reads silently over her shoulder. Then, Mamie-Clare unleashes a seemingly random series of questions on Tracy in response to the story: “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” And “How would a person who disagrees with a woman’s right to choose be negatively or positively influenced by reading your story?”

This scene is pretty great, because it pokes fun at the high-mindedness of liberal, rich, white people. As a piece of absurdism, it succeeds marvelously. But as a part of the movie, it waffles. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are never quite sure what they think of their own characters. Do they care about them? Are they setting them up for mockery? They aren’t even quite sure whether Brooke is a raging exaggerator or just an insouciant dreamer. In this the movie falsely fancies itself complex. It’s really just muddled.

Tracy clearly idolizes Brooke and is devastated by the breaking off of their friendship. When they reconcile at the end—which is admittedly a sweet moment—Tracy offers a phony summing up of Brooke’s character: She’s one of the last cowboys, a rebel whose place in the world is to inspire other people. She’s part of a dying breed, unable to survive in modern society where you constantly have to market yourself. Tracy is too enamored of Brooke to be honest about her, and we never really can trust Brooke, who tries so hard to appear cool and authentic and savvy. She has a lot of layers, but when you peel them back, there’s not much there. Perhaps the movie is the same.

Baumbach probably should have quit while he was ahead. With Frances Ha, he achieved something warm and clever and affecting. Mistress America is a blur of a movie, one that needed to be better worked out in the abstract. The dialogue is often funny in a nonsensical way, as though Baumbach and Gerwig were imitating Joseph L. Mankiewcicz’s dialogue from All About Eve, which crackles with sophisticated, incisive, fizzy little one-liners but also, thanks largely to the performances, achieves a deeper, almost poetic authenticity about fame and money and relationships.

Mistress America doesn’t achieve that level of brilliance, although it tries very hard. (Baumbach and Gerwig might have had better luck if they’d conjured up the spirit of Bette Davis.) In its defense, however, this movie is very much alive. The scenes of Brooke and Tracy in New York (this is a very New Yorky movie), have a fluid, exuberant kick to them, heightened by the luscious synth-pop score by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. As confounding and half-baked as Mistress America is, I’m glad it exists. It’s an uneven but strangely charming trance of a movie, blithely and happily eccentric. 

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