First Look: Gerwig Shines in a Delightful ‘Mistress America’

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mistress America': Sundance Review.

Park City, Utah — Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s new film, “Mistress America,” a comedy about a young college student who befriends her adventurous future stepsister, premiered to a lively, laughing audience Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival. “There was a subgenre of movies of people who get taken out of their comfortable lives to a strange environment,” Baumbach said during a Q&A following the film’s premiere.Comparing the films Noah Baumbach has made before and after he met Greta Gerwig, his girlfriend and muse, I’d guess that Gerwig is loopy, sweet, disorganized and hilarious. In “Mistress America,” Gerwig plays Brooke, a capricious, free-spirited woman who lives in Times Square and takes her future stepsister, Tracy (newcomer Lola Kirke), under her wing.

But there’s much else to admire in “Mistress,” which finds the crown prince of New York intellectual self-loathing and his ebullient co-writer/muse returning to the terrain of their 2012 “Frances Ha” — intense female friendships and eager young people trying to find their places in the world — while pushing even closer to full-tilt screwball farce. Continuing a collaboration that began five years ago with Greenberg and then paid rich creative dividends in Frances Ha, they here come up with a girl-bonding-and-breaking tale that simultaneously feels tossed off and minutely choreographed in terms of its comic timing. Baumbach’s work now has bridged the gap between clever, disaffected, commitment-phobic Gen X (as in his first, and to my mind, perfect, debut feature, 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming”) and the Millennials, with their sincerity and their seemingly generation-wide desire to do something small and cool that is, if possible, wonderful for humanity, but if not, just plain nice. One of Baumbach’s warmest and purely funniest films, this Fox Searchlight pickup may lack the name cast of the filmmaker’s other 2015 release, “While We’re Young,” but positioned properly it could reach Baumbach’s broadest audience since 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale.” If nothing else, “Mistress America” confirms Gerwig as one of the great, fearless screen comediennes of her generation — a tall, loose-limbed whirligig who careers through scenes with the beatific ditziness of a Carole Lombard or Judy Holliday.

But as Brooke runs into financial trouble, she seeks help from an ex-fiance and former best friend who live in a lavish house in Connecticut – an entirely different environment from Manhattan. This time around, she and Baumbach have cooked up a doozy of a role in Brooke, a self-styled interior designer/aerobics instructor/social media maven who takes on life at such high velocity that no one — least of all Brooke herself — has time to notice that she’s barely hanging on by a thread. More problematic for many viewers may be the overpowering verbal torrent unleashed by Gerwig’s force-of-nature Manhattan scenester, as well as the viciousness with which some of the female characters attack one another.

In an extended sequence midway through the film, an ensemble of actors move in and out of rooms in the glass house and spout rapid-fire repartee at each other. “When we got to the house, we loved doing something old-fashioned,” Baumbach said. “Something where you can see everybody in their environment, where the doors didn’t slam.” Gerwig noted the irony of trying to film a screwball comedy “in a house with sliding doors. She’s the sort of person the shy, awkward Frances Halladay would have looked on with envy — a Zelig-ish character who seems to have New York tied around her little finger, whether running on stage with the band at a trendy nightclub, scaling the fire escape to her chic industrial loft, or soliciting investors for the quaint, family-style Williamsburg restaurant she plans to open with her absent boyfriend (who is, she proclaims with the utmost certainty, “off in Greece betting against the economy or something”).

Structurally, the film resembles countless works from The Great Gatsby on down that are told from the point of view of a relative greenhorn captivated by a larger-than-life figure. Tracy, the college freshman, is at sea on campus, which she likens to a 24/7 party where she doesn’t know anyone, and her short story has been rejected by the literary magazine even as a nerdy fellow writer (Matthew Shear) with whom she shares a romantic Manhattan evening turns out to have a girlfriend. As is also often the case with such stories, the audience’s perspective is controlled by a writer or, more correctly put, an aspiring writer, as Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old just entering college in Manhattan whose first stab at joining the school’s elite Mobius Literary Society is firmly rejected. Attractive but a bit odd and socially on the outs, Tracy finds her life leapfrogging into another dimension once she phones Brooke (Gerwig), whose father her mother has decided to marry.

By the time their first night together is up, the seeds of a short story have begun to take root in Tracy’s mind — a development that allows Baumbach to once again riff wryly on ideas of artistic license and intellectual property, favorite subjects of a filmmaker who has himself drawn deeply at the well of personal experience. Brooke unloads a year’s worth of ideas and opinions and ambitions and plans over the course of one evening as she leads her young new best friend to a succession of hot spots and parties where she seems to know everyone. And on top of all this, Brooke leads a kick-ass spin class in the morning. wonderful restaurant called Mom’s that will be home away from home for all the best people forever and ever.

Dramatically, though, the film gets somewhat stuck in one sprawling half-hour scene set in a mansion in Greenwich where Brooke, Tracy, Tracy’s not-boyfriend, his girlfriend, Brooke’s ex-boyfriend, her husband, a neighbor and a random pregnant guest from a Faulkner seminar all take part in what is essentially a screwball one-act play, in which Brooke seeks last-ditch financing for her restaurant from her wealthy ex. And Baumbach rounds out the cast with a couple of other discoveries: the very funny Matthew Shear as Tracy’s tightly wound classmate (and unrequited crush) and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as his petulant jealous girlfriend. Still, Gerwig’s character is more complicated and interesting than her cute, loveable but shallow persona in “Frances Ha,” which mildly disappointed me considering my immense respect for Baumbach. This time Brooke is in denial both about her inability to follow through on her ideas and about her nasty quality, which comes to the fore in an atypical but absolutely stellar scene in which a high school classmate confronts Brooke in a bar and reveals her past as a bully. Brooke corrals a gang including Tracy, her college literary buddy Tony (Matthew Spear) and the latter’s severely possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) to caravan up to Greenwich, where she’ll wheedle the money out of her loaded old pal Dylan (Michael Chernus).

Kirke, who closely resembles her sister Jemima from “Girls,” only with brown hair and without a British accent, is a real find for Baumbach: She’s not merely pretty but she really holds the screen, with a low voice and a restless intelligence, and she deadpans her lines perfectly. It’s a dazzling sequence, and Gerwig is a marvel to behold in it — shrieking, blaming, groveling, goading and, finally, arriving at a place of real feeling where the real Brooke stands revealed, stripped of her artifices, if only for a moment. At this point, Mistress America pivots from being a loose-limbed girl-talk movie that rambles all over New York City to stylized housebound social comedy that may feature the fastest spoken dialogue in an American film since Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, or else since Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed.

She and Gerwig make for a charming pair of pals — what’s the female version of a bromance? — and their funny, frenetic friendship is a pleasure to observe. As with “Frances Ha,” Baumbach and Gerwig made “Mistress America” somewhat clandestinely, with a small crew and a leisurely post-production, and this looser way of working is once again reflected in the movie itself, which bristles with kinetic energy for the brief 84 minutes it’s onscreen. Bulldozing her way into Dylan’s ultra-sleek modern mansion, where a book group consisting of nothing but pregnant women are gathered to reconsider the merits of William Faulkner, Brooke must first contend with her friend’s sleek harridan of a wife (Heather Lind), who hates her. But once the affable Dylan finally shows and listens to Brooke’s pitch, Nicolette nails Tracy to the wall by exposing her so-called literary betrayal of Brooke, which instantly ruptures their relationship. The negative and destructive energy expended by women against other women here is quite something to behold, and the fact that it’s done in such an archly artificial style merely serves to exaggerate its effect.

But the inconsistency of the approach overall, combined with Gerwig’s maximum voltage performance, is disconcerting, even off-putting, making Mistress America rather less charming and inviting than might have been intended. Tracy is an intentionally passive and reactive figure, which puts real limits on what Kirke, who recently impressed as Greta in Gone Girl, can do here. Camera (color), Sam Levy; editor, Jennifer Lame; music, Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips; music supervisor, George Drakoulias; production designer, Sam Lisenco; art director, Ashley Fenton; set decorator, Katie Hickman; costume designer, Sarah Mae Burton; sound (Dolby Digital), Micah Bloomberg; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; visual effects supervisor, Andrew Lim; visual effects, Boxmotion; associate producers, Eli Bush, Brendan McHugh; assistant director, Oscar Boyson; casting, Douglas Aibel. The film has nothing if not great energy, vitality and an active creative spirit, but it’s all been channeled here in a way that comes off as erratic and sometimes ill-judged.

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