Mistress America (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Mistress America,” written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, is consistently amusing because it manages to capture the ironies, confusion, and insecurities of a young woman feeling like she is floundering in life—and is helpless to do anything about it. Yet at times the picture is a great frustration, too. About halfway through, it shifts location from New York City to an affluent area in Connecticut and one wonders if it is the writers’ intent to satirize its characters rather than continuing to get us to relate to their challenges.
Gerwig plays Brooke, a woman in her thirties with many—perhaps too many—ideas and dreams. Although she starts to find ways to achieve them, it is almost a self-destructive habit that she consistently fails to follow through. This gives her a great unhappiness that she attempts to hide by acting hip, relevant, and fun. Brooke’s father is to marry Tracy’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) during the coming Thanksgiving. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is reminded by her mother to call Brooke so they can get to know each other more. After all, they are only a bus or a subway ride away from one another.
The film reaches the peak of its power as the two young women meet, attend clubs, party, and have sleepovers. Pay particular attention to the manner in which their conversations unfold—because these are often one-sided. They may share a table over dinner or drinks but there is a lack of genuine connection between them because Brooke is, essentially, a selfish individual; the conversations must always be about her problems and concerns about achieving some kind of success that she fails to realize that the person in front of her idolizes her so deeply.
Tracy and Brooke’s hangouts are appropriately shot with an almost dreamy, yellowish glow. And yet the various locations they visit look and feel genuine. For instance, when Times Square is shown, it is not some idealized version found in glossy magazines or more mainstream pictures. It shows a disorganized place, almost disorienting in the number people walking around and amount of traffic in the streets. Getting details like this correctly is most necessary because it pushes the point that both subjects hold such a high regard about the city that they have become blind to the fact that maybe NYC is not as wonderful as they imaged it to be prior to joining the hustle, bustle, and competition.
In scenes depicting the two spending time together, notice that the camera rarely lingers on a shot or a scene. There is an energetic youth about it that feels detached, unconcerned about portraying any trace of substance. One-liners are often funny so we snicker a bit—and yet the more we think about these lines carefully, we realize there is a lack of logic or substance to them. These passing words mean nothing—and Brooke is used to saying such nothings because she is not at all a good listener. We wonder if she is merely pulling out these lines from books she barely read and never finished.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Mistress America” loses some power as the story moves from NYC to Connecticut—not just because there is a lack of control when it comes to the type of comedy it wishes to show. The comedy feels forced; there is a great schism between a more natural approach, despite some level of quirkiness, during the first half and the unnatural confrontations in the form of whining and yelling during the latter half. Due to this confusion, one wonders what kind of message the writers hoped to get across.