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Mistress America
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Nathan Rabin Had Better Be Getting A Royalty From This One. . ."
1 stars

As anyone who has read these dispatches of mine with any degree of regularity can attest, I am not a particularly big fan of actress Greta Gerwig--whether in one of the micro-budgeted mumblecore monstrosities where she first attracted attention to the more expensive but equally inane projects that she eventually gravitated to, her calculatedly quirky persona has generally had the same affect on me as fingernails on a chalkboard. Faithful readers will also recall that if I were to compose a list of my least favorite filmmakers of the moment, Noah Baumbach, the creator of such relentlessly solipsistic hymns to narcissism as "The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding," "Greenberg" and "Frances Ha" (the last two made in collaboration with Gerwig, for those of you scoring at home), would be right near the top. This is not to say that I have totally dismissed everything that they have done over the years--I thought Gerwig was very good in "Damsels in Distress," where writer-director Whit Stillman took her most enervating qualities and mined them for genuine comedic gold and Baumbach's collaborations with Wes Anderson on the screenplays for "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" indicates that he apparently plays well with others (at least exponentially more talented others)--and they do have their fair share of supporters. However, it is safe to say that any time a film comes along with either one of their names--let alone both together--my reaction tends to be not unlike that of Scatman Crothers in that scene in "The Shining" when he has his nap interrupted by a call from out west. (The difference is that in most of those cases, I find myself praying for someone to sink an ax into my chest.)

And yet, as much as I have disliked the vast majority of their previous screen endeavors, both separately and together, nothing quite prepared me for the excruciating spectacle of their latest collaboration, "Mistress America," a nauseating neo-screwball comedy nightmare that is one of the more excruciating 90 minutes that I can recall spending anywhere outside of a dentist's chair. Of course, having just explained my long-standing antipathy towards the combined Gerwig/Baumbach oeuvres, some of you might be tempted to dismiss this review as little more than the rantings of someone who harbored a serious prejudice against the film and its participants long before the press screening even began. I understand that sentiment but even if you do decide to dismiss my thoughts out of hand, this is a film that should still be avoided like a plague for the way that it takes its potentially interesting explorations of female camaraderie and people trying to figure out where they belong in the world, even long after they should have gotten things together, and squanders them on a screechy and laugh-free horror of a comedy.

The hell of it is that it actually begins on a promising note as the ambitious Tracy (Lola Kirke) arrives at Barnard College for the first semester of her freshman year and finds herself struggling to fit in. Her roommate is a bit of a nightmare, her submission to the literary society that she desperately wants to belong to is rejected and the classmate that she develops a bit of a crush on, fellow literary society reject Tony (Mathew Shear), already has a girlfriend in the eternally suspicious Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). At loose ends, she calls her mother (Kathryn Erbe), who is just about to remarry, and she suggests that perhaps it might be a nice idea for her to meet up with stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig), a 30ish ball of fire (to invoke the name of just one of the many films you should be watching instead of this one) who doesn't have a career as much as a careen and whose latest scheme is to entice investors into sinking money into a business proposition that she is putting together with her always-absent boyfriend for a combination restaurant/hair salon/art gallery that she is convinced is going to be hipster nirvana. The two meet and hit it off fabulously--Brooke enjoys having someone younger around who plainly seems to idolize everything she says or does and Tracy sees her as a true inspiration, not just in life but for her literary ambitions as well as she secretly pens a short story based on their first night out together that becomes her entree into the literary society.

Things soon go sour when Brooke's boyfriend bails on both her and the deal and she is forced to seek new investors to cough up a lot of money in very little time or else lose everything. Desperate, she hits upon the idea of hitting up Dylan (Michael Chernus), a rich ex-boyfriend that she is still apparently on good terms with, for the money and enlists Tracy to accompany her. Alas, Dylan resides in Connecticut and since he is the only one with a car, Tony comes along for the ride along with the still-jealous Nicolette. When they arrive at last, Dylan isn't home but his wife (Heather Lind) certainly is--a problem since she is a former friend of Brooke's whom she accuses of stealing her fiancee, her idea for a designer T-shirt line and even her cats. While the group waits for Dylan to arrive, old tensions between the former friends boil over and not even the arrival of the easygoing latecomer can quite smooth things over. Thrown in Nicolette's jealousy over Tracy, Brooke's resentment over her former friend, a pesky neighbor, a bag of pot and an errant copy of Tracy's story about Brooke and everything begins to fall to pieces even before Brooke can begin to make her big pitch.

As has been the case with virtually all of Baumbach's films, "Mistress America" is another story focused on overeducated people who prefer to do almost anything rather than buckle down and actually make something of their lives--if they don't do anything, then they can't possibly fail is their rationale. This is a concept that could make for a wonderfully knowing comedy and in fact, one such film has already been made in the form of the aforementioned "Damsels in Distress." The problem with Baumbach is that he seems more interested in celebrating this attitude rather than criticizing it and "Mistress America" is his most appalling embrace of pretentiousness run wild to date. Put simply, Brooke is a monster--the kind of person you would flee zip codes to avoid running into--but instead of recognizing her as such (as Whitman did with the similar character that Gerwig played in his film), he and Gerwig seem to have been entranced with her and assume that everyone else will be equally delighted with her motormouth madness. Ironically, one of the very few scenes that does work and that does cut through all the bullshit is one when Brooke runs into an old high school classmate who, after a few forced civilities, proceeds to tear her down as the terrible person who treated her cruelly all those years ago while Brooke just stands there, unable to comprehend that someone out there doesn't find her to be delightful. It is a rare moment of truth--even Gerwig is good in the scene--and if there had been more like it, the film might have actually been on to something.

As I mentioned earlier, the film does actually start off pretty well as it observes Tracy's difficulties trying to fit in to her new existence at college--a place where she could easily reinvent herself, if only she knew what she wanted to be. These scenes are smart and funny, demonstrate recognizable human behavior and, thanks to the nice performance by Lola Kirke (who you will remember as the white trash vixen who robbed Rosamund Pike of her bankroll in "Gone Girl"), introduces us to the rare character in the Baumbach canon that is genuinely likable. Brooke even gets a fairly spectacular entrance when she and Tracy first meet and some of their early adventures and conversations have a certain excitement to them. The trouble is that after a while, they all begin to sound the same and Brooke slips over from charming eccentric to boorish bore as the story eggs her on the higher and higher levels of obnoxiousness. To make matters worse, the film continues to have Tracy insist on Brooke's special appeal long after she has worn out her welcome and all this does is make her look increasingly idiotic as well.

To make matters worse, all of the other characters--even Tracy, eventually--are equally monotonous and when the film brings them all together for the extended screwball comedy-influenced sequence at Dylan's house, the results are so ghastly and obnoxious that it becomes the kind of door-slamming farce where you wish that the doors had been slammed and barricaded before anyone entered. Pulling off screwball comedy, especially in this age, requires a very deft touch, crack timing and a screenplay that contains both funny dialogue and amusing characters and, to put it bluntly, Baumbach possesses none of those qualities--the pacing is off, the characters seem to be reciting their dialogue instead of speaking it and the lines that they have been given are a.) just not that funny and b.) all sound like the same person talking. the result is a comedic set-piece so utterly bereft of laughs that I found myself hoping that the guys from "Funny Games" would wander over to borrow a couple of eggs and perk things up.

As much as I hate "Mistress America," I take no particular pleasure in slamming it in the way that I have here. Like I said, the opening scenes are quite good and the notion of a film exploring the vagaries of female friendship that doesn't rely on the usual romantic misunderstandings is also promising. Hell, I don't even mind the idea of a film with a deliberately off-putting character at its center, provided that their obnoxiousness is at least rendered in interesting ways. Unfortunately, that is not the case here and "Mistress America," once those opening scenes are through, quickly devolves into a mess that is ultimately as aggravating as its central character proves to be. This is the kind of film where you notice that a character has a poster for "Dressed to Kill" on their wall and then spend the rest of the film wishing that you had just watched that one instead--not only is it an exponentially better film, it is also infinitely funnier to boot.

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originally posted: 08/21/15 11:53:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.

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  14-Aug-2015 (R)
  DVD: 01-Dec-2015

  14-Aug-2015 (15)

  14-Aug-2015 (MA)
  DVD: 01-Dec-2015

Directed by
  Noah Baumbach

Written by
  Noah Baumbach
  Greta Gerwig

  Greta Gerwig
  Lola Kirke

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