by George Wolf
If you thought director Noah Baumbach was turning all populist after While We’re Young, take heart! At my recent screening of Mistress America, five people walked out within the first twenty minutes, apparently put off by hilariously flawed characters who talk to themselves, but at each other, without mercy.
It’s a charming, wonderfully offbeat, fast-paced dialogue fest, and a perfect vehicle for Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach.
Gerwig stars as Brooke, a busy New Yorker who seems happy to get a visit from her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke – impressive), an 18 year-old student at a nearby college. Brooke bombards Tracy with stories of her exciting life and social calendar (“He’s the kind of person I hate – except I’m in love with him!”), instantly gaining an admirer. Tracy’s reserved demeanor is no match for hurricane Brooke, and soon Tracy and two friends are joining Brooke on a mission to persuade her rich old boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) into bankrolling her plan for a new restaurant/hair salon/cool place to be combo.
The gang ends up crashing a party hosted by Dylan’s wife (loves these names) Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire may or may not have stolen Brooke’s idea for a line of t-shirts, and the visit descends into a madcap frenzy of incidents and allegations. As characters move throughout the rooms of Dylan’s lavish house, Baumbach stages it to perfection, much like a high school play directed by a coked-up Woody Allen.
Underneath the inspired insanity, though, lies a love letter to the written word. Tracy desperately wants to join her school’s literary club, and she uses Brooke as the basis for a short story that she hopes will be accepted into their magazine.
As the characters’ continue their rapid fire, often non-sequitur dialogue, it’s offset with Tracy’s voiceover reading of the measured, wonderfully flowing prose of her short story. This not only puts a spotlight on the art of writing, it cleverly reinforces the film’s undercurrent of self-delusion.
Brooke lives to define herself, as Tracy so eloquently puts it, as “a beacon of hope for lesser people,” regardless of how well her definition aligns with reality. “Lesser” people’s descriptions aren’t as welcome, a fact beautifully illustrated by a scene where Brooke is recognized by an old high school classmate. Gerwig is a true wonder in the role, combining comic timing with the depth needed to make Brooke sympathetic no matter how much you want to dislike her.
Will Mistress America be the movie where the masses (minus those five party poopers from my screening) get hip to Gerwig’s unique talents?
Let’s hope so.