Cinematic Releases: Mistress America

Andrew takes on Mistress America

"This porn is so boring."
Writer-director and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Noah Baumbach seems to be hitting his Woody Allen phase.  After peaking with Greenberg, Baumbach and his new partner in crime Greta Gerwig seem content to coast on the crest wave of that film’s success all the while refraining from breaking new ground.  You could make the argument Baumbach is either losing his edge or is himself becoming increasingly detached from his already icy characters. 

For a director who made such forward progression with a character who does anything but, Baumbach’s last two features felt like a vacation on the verge of reeling backwards.  Once again, it’s a day in the hedonistic life of Greta Gerwig in New York City and at one point or another in the self-absorbed lives of the ensemble cast of characters, a fight will erupt and nasty insults hurled at one another will fill the air.  Fresh off of the more commercially appealing While We’re Young, the director’s second feature of 2015, Mistress America, feels more like an undercooked throwback to Frances Ha than anything else.  Where Greenberg seemed to take mumblecore into a visually expansive yet refined framework, Mistress America has the do-it-yourself stage presence of most of James Toback’s filmography.

Performances, as expected from Baumbach, are always strong and occasionally startling.  Gerwig is always a force of nature all her own and much like the director, the film is clearly in awe of her even as her character missteps.  Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) as Gerwig’s soon-to-be stepsister comes into her own as a confident and inseparable ally to Gerwig and although her presence is largely overshadowed by Gerwig she can definitely hold her own.  Among the film’s strongest assets is the electronic score by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, echoing the synthesized twee of New Order’s Your Silent Face with just a hint of Portlandia.  It’s a bright and colorful listen in its own right and lends the film a lighthearted comic tone, providing a cushion for when the unexpectedly heavier exchanges ensue.  As with all of Baumbach’s films, there’s a recurring theme of stunted emotional growth and the tightrope walk between youth and adulthood.  There’s also, unlike his contemporary Wes Anderson, a mean streak running through his work which has the capacity to lash out with unrelenting cruelty.  Where Anderson’s storybook visual style tempered the flames, Baumbach’s lack of filter tends to fan them. 

"Yeah. The way we dress is
so boring too."
That said, While We’re Young had a conventional narrative structure that made the feuding protagonists’ plight easier to latch onto where Mistress America is a bit of a mess that’s harder to invest in emotionally.  As it unfolded, my thoughts kept drifting back to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky which observed the life of a woman and her group of friends in the city.  Where that film also lacked a plot, it did manage to provide a heroine full of life and spirit guiding us through the film’s formless design.  With Mistress America, we get the opposite and while that’s to be expected of the director who usually dabbles in miserable consternation, it’s a bit tougher to care about anyone in this case.  On the one hand Greta Gerwig is undeniably a leading lady in the movies with personality and physique that’s felt in every scene she inhabits and as always the dialogue is sharp and witty.  On the other hand, Baumbach’s lesser of his two 2015 features has a tendency to meander and after it’s all said and done we unfortunately come up short.  


-Andrew Kotwicki

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