CINEMA: Femmes Fatale


MISTRESS AMERICA (2015, directed by Noah Baumbach, 84 minutes, U.S.)

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Director Noah Baumbach is back with his second release of 2015, showcasing the dare-I-say zany charm of his writing and romantic partner Greta Gerwig in their latest joint, Mistress America. This bittersweet comedy comes off as a continuation of their celebrated collaboration from 2012, the effervescent Frances Ha, although in their latest tale Baumbach and Gerwig seem to take her character to task for being the sort a ditsy flake with which today’s New York City will no longer abide.

Where Frances Ha showed us a gorgeous monochrome NYC through the eyes of its impetuous heroine, Mistress America shows us Gerwig’s Brooke through the eyes of her future stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke, younger sister of Girls‘ Jemima Kirke). Tracy is Barnard College student fresh to the city and a decade-plus younger than Brooke, who Tracy first spots grandly descending a long flight of stairs. Tracy is in college hoping to become a writer and if she is overwhelmed by meeting Brooke and experiencing her constant stream of brainstorming and philosophizing, Tracy is just as glad to sit back and study this rare creature with a writer’s eye.

Initially, Brooke is a blast to be around. Full of wide-ranging enthusiasms, Brooke shows Tracy the possibilities of the city: she jumps on stage at rock shows, takes Tracy to crowded house parties and allows her funky Times Square apartment to be Tracy’s home-away-from-home. The more Tracy studies Brooke the more cracks in her charm appear, ultimately taking us to the place where the life of the party is revealed as the party’s biggest narcissist. Brooke dramatic sensibility demands an audience and Tracy and her young college friends appear to fill the void as well as anybody.

Gerwig plays the same sort of adorable flake on which she’s built her comic persona and the film is filled with so many joke lines you may not immediately notice that unlike her title character in Frances Ha, Brooke is pretty much friendless. Her out-of-town boyfriend (“He’s one of those people that I hate, except that I’m in love with him”) never shows up and when we do finally meet Brooke’s old friends (in a scenario that seems a little forced, much like Baumbach’s entire last film, the Ben Stiller vehicle, While We’re Young) they are leery of being sucked back into her vortex. Brooke is the most beautiful and lively character in the film, but as she begins to goofily clarify her hazy business schemes, Baumbach pushes her to the point where the viewer also begins to wonder if we are on Brooke’s side.

Not quite as effortless as his best work, Baumbach again sails quite far on the talents of his co-writer and star. Gerwig remains one of the most gifted comic actors of her generation, a big-boned over-sharing force of nature, forever incapable of delivering on her good intentions. By the end of Mistress America (are they really reaching for an national analogy?), we learn that beneath her stream of endless chatter lies an ocean of desperate sadness. Coming in at a fleet and breezy 87 minutes and stuffed silly with jokes and gags, some people probably won’t even notice the tragedy that seems ready to roust just after the movie ends.