It’s been only a few months since Noah Baumbach’s last movie ‘While We’re Young’ hit theater screens, but the master of cynicism is already back with another tale of narcissists on the path to a meltdown. Reteaming with his muse and co-writer Greta Gerwig, Baumbach has served up a somewhat slighter comedy that nonetheless has a bitter aftertaste.
Lola Kirke stars as Tracy, a lonely college freshman who came to New York with dreams of finally finding her people, only to end up feeling just as despondent in her new urban setting. She wants to be a writer, but simply can’t seem to get in with the stuffy pretentious folks running her college’s literary magazine. She hopes to find a boyfriend, but ends up making friends with a likeminded boy (Matthew Shear) who finds a hyper-jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) a little too quickly.
All that rejection leaves Tracy feeling extra lonely, so she reaches out to her future sister-in-law and longtime New Yorker Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke is one of those people convinced that she’s building her own legend even though no one else seems to be paying attention. She dabbles in several jobs and fantasizes about even more dreams. She’s clearly been coasting by as a delightful chatterbox in parties for a little too long and never quite found her own place despite claiming it was any number of things. Tracy is instantly smitten by Brooke’s confidence and kookiness – so much so that she turns her affection into a critically funny short story that feels like a smoking gun awaiting a third act reveal.
Like all of Baumbach’s work, ‘Mistress America’ is driven entirely by dialogue and characterization. That man writes some of the wittiest verbal diarrhea in the business. Together with Gerwig, they’ve created quite possibly the quintessential Noah Baumbach character. Brooke is never at a loss for words and loves the sound of her own voice, yet seems completely clueless as too how much she’s revealing about herself. Gerwig’s performance is wonderful, yet a little odd. Her character is constantly performing for everyone around her, so in the early going it seems like the acting is a bit stiff. However, that’s a very deliberate affectation. As the story wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that all of Brooke’s hysterically over-the-top arrogance is in fact a protective veil covering a mountain of insecurity. Gerwig nails the role, playing for laughs for much of the movie and then delivering on the tragically real nature of her character only when the time is right.
The trouble with the character is that she’s so dominant over every scene and so central to the purpose of the piece that every supporting character feels slight. That’s’ not to say that the performances are disappointing, because everyone is strong. Nor are the characters underwritten; they all get a least one big scene to shine. It’s just that Baumbach and Gerwig have created a movie entirely around one big personality that doesn’t leave room for much else.
By the time the movie stumbles into the third act, it transforms into a little chamber farce between all the characters who appeared thus far and winds up in one of those big dramatic fights where all the tensions and themes of the piece are layered bare in a few terse rounds of verbal sparring. It works, but feels a bit slight and visibly constructed given the live wire at the center of the strange little movie.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with Gerwig and Baumbach delivering a lightly comedic character study at this point. After years of struggling around the indie fringes, Baumbach has become a bit of a brand name over the last few years. With Woody Allen running his act into the ground lately, Baumbach seems to be taking up the mantle of the New York’s resident cynically comedic filmmaker of the moment with erudite flourishes and an almost literary approach to dialogue. He has a knack for this brand of character comedy, a way with exposing contemporary neuroses, and in Gerwig an ideal star to deliver the goods.
If Baumbach were to start cranking out one of his bitter little pills annually, it wouldn’t be unwelcome. However, if this is just an unexpected explosion of production before going back to slower filmmaking rhythms, hopefully he digs a little deeper next time, like in his masterpiece ‘The Squid and the Whale’. ‘Mistress America’ was certainly worth the few months wait, but if years had gone by between this and ‘While We’re Young’, it might have felt a bit more disappointing.