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Mistress America Movie Review

Mistress America (2015) movie poster Mistress America

Theatrical Release: August 14, 2015 / Running Time: 86 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Noah Baumbach / Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig

Cast: Greta Gerwig (Brooke Cardinas), Lola Kirke (Tracy Fishko), Matthew Shear (Tony), Jasmine Cephas-Jones (Nicolette), Heather Lind (Mamie-Claire), Michael Chernus (Dylan), Cindy Cheung (Karen), Kathryn Erbe (Tracy's Mom), Dean Wareheim (Harold), Shana Dowdeswell (Ruth), Kareem Williams (Kareem), Seth Barrish (voice of Brooke's Dad), Colin Stokes (Mobius Guy), Mickey Sumner (Fake Brooke)


Noah Baumbach has found a valuable muse in Greta Gerwig. Baumbach, celebrating his twentieth anniversary as a writer-director this year, first crossed paths with Gerwig when he cast her as the deuteragonist in 2010's Greenberg.
As the relationship expanded from professional to personal, it next gave us Frances Ha, 2013's winsome French New Wave-inspired black and white comedy on which the two shared writing credit. After having to drop out of While We're Young, her role being recast with Amanda Seyfried, Gerwig reunites with Baumbach on Mistress America, a spry color comedy co-written by them that also stars Gerwig as one of two female leads.

Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a freshman at Barnard University. She doesn't really fit in with her roommate or her classmates and her submission into the school's Mobius writing society is rejected, sparing her of the late night pie-in-face initiation that selective organization extends. On the advice of her mother (Kathryn Erbe), who is about to remarry, Tracy reaches out to Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig), the 30-year-old who will become her stepsister through the union. Brooke is happy to make time for Tracy and embrace her as her baby sister.

Living in the heart of Times Square, Brooke wields a powerful personality. She is in the midst of opening her own restaurant. She is frequently photographed attending society events. And she is happy to spill her unfiltered thoughts all over Tracy's impressionable, young ears. Tracy instantly values their time together not just because Brooke is the rare New Yorker to give her the time of day, but because she sees short story potential in a character based on this babbling Brooke.

In Noah Baumbach's "Mistress America", a loner college freshman (Lola Kirke) befriends her cosmopolitan stepsister-to-be (Greta Gerwig).

After her Greek boyfriend backs out of funding her idealistic restaurant plan, Brooke scrambles to find another backer. At the advice of a psychic, she decides to journey to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), the friend turned nemesis who stole her idea for a T-shirt line, lives with her wealthy husband Dylan (Michael Chernus), Brooke's ex-fiancι. Also along for the ride are Tracy's fellow aspiring writer and would-be love interest (Matthew Shear), providing the car, and his jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Like Baumbach's other films, the best known of which may be The Squid and the Whale, Mistress America is a study of three-dimensional characters. It unfolds with sharp dialogue, timely on-point social commentary, and a profound interest in what it means to be an unfulfilled person of a certain age alive today. While Baumbach's characters have generally aged with him, from the fresh-out-of-college grads of Kicking and Screaming to the middle-aged misanthrope of Greenberg, sharing screenplay duties (and life) with Gerwig has put him in tune with younger people and their different points of view. The intergenerational friendship of While We're Young resurfaces to a less extreme here, with us noticing the 12-year gap between Tracy and Brooke that Brooke wishes to ignore.

You may not like either of the characters played by the leading ladies. You may also accuse Baumbach of being preoccupied to a fault exclusively with the concerns of privileged white people living in either New York or Los Angeles. You may even fail to see the value in this wry kind of storytelling that is peppered with profanity. But I can't personally stand behind any of those criticisms.

There is no wealth of filmmakers using the medium to tell meaningful personal stories, let alone with the flair for writing scenes and characters that Baumbach displays. Baumbach's consistent and consistently enjoyable works remind one of the earlier films of Wes Anderson, with whom he co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Baumbach doesn't utilize a directorial style anything like Anderson's distinctive, colorful, anamorphic vision, but a relative disinterest in camera moves and production design frees Baumbach up to focus purely on the storytelling, a task he does not take lightly and the area where Anderson's latest efforts have most been lacking.

Near the end of the prolonged theatrical scene in Greenwich, Connecticut, everyone gathers around Brooke (Greta Gerwig) to read and critique Tracy's short story inspired by her new friend.

The movie hits its stride close to the end of its extremely taut 86 minutes, with an extended sequence that feels like a play. Funny lines flow from left and right, with more than half a dozen characters brought together under complex but clear circumstances getting a chance to inject their personality. (Bit part-seasoned Chernus seizes an opportunity to shine comedically like never before, displaying comfort with the dialogue only exceeded by Gerwig.)
The standout scene is one in which Brooke explains her restaurant idea, initially sounding like an unprepared high school student delivering an oral presentation but eventually finding her way to genuinely inspire with this clear vision of a pure, special hybrid community establishment. At the end, the entire media stage room of Dylan and Mamie-Claire's mansion breaks out in applause, not with irony or saccharinity but in acknowledgment of a genuinely powerful and persuasive moment of expression.

Baumbach may not be inclined to tell stories devoid of autobiographical elements, but he always puts his life experiences and observations to fruitful use. He's not afraid to subvert mainstream tastes, to test the boundaries of movie stars' appeal, to serve up realistically unlikable characters, or to disappoint at the box office again and again. His films are not for mass consumption and with the exception of his two screenplays with Anderson and DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar 3, none of his work has gotten close to four-digit theater counts or being considered a truly popular attraction. If he is content to continue making sophisticated, funny films that critics and intelligent people enjoy while the general public ignores, why should we question his instincts?

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach: Frances Ha • Greenberg • While We're Young • The Squid and the Whale • Margot at the Wedding
Greta Gerwig: Arthur (2011) • The Humbling • No Strings Attached • To Rome with Love | Lola Kirke: Gone Girl
Co-Written by Noah Baumbach: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou • Fantastic Mr. Fox • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
Now in Theaters: Irrational Man • The End of the Tour • Dark Places

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Reviewed August 28, 2015.

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