“MISTRESS AMERICA”, THE new movie from Noah Baumbach (of the brilliant, “While We Were Young” and “Frances Ha) refers to a short story penned by the young, impressionable Tracy (Lola Kirke from “Gone Girl”) about her exuberant, selfish, charismatic friend, Brooke (Greta Gerwig from “Frances Ha”, “Greenberg” etc. who also co-wrote).
Brooke has wild and totally unrealistic dreams about opening a restaurant, come community center, come hair salon, come art gallery…having herself never opened a restaurant before or for that matter, even knowing how to cook. It’s just one of the many schemes, bright ideas and follies that, undifferentiated one from the other, clutter Brooke’s lively imagination. She’s a sexy, trippy, funny, thirty year old egomaniacal loser who, in her own mind, is a success just waiting to happen. It’s not clear whether she’s simply self-delusional or has a massively inflated ego-driven overdose of self-belief.
To naïve Tracy, she’s both a leader you want to follow, and, more importantly, a character study waiting to be written. Finally to the more withdrawn, thoughtful observing eye of Tracy, here is a subject fitting her own self-centered powers of observation.
Around these two planets circle a number of lesser constellations: Tracy’s ‘object of desire’ is a nerdy looking Tony (Matthew Shear, also of “While We Were Young”) a fellow writer who seems to share none of her romantic interests; his sourpuss girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) is someone who may or may not have been around prior to Tracy’s crush on him; Brooke’s clear-sighted ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus:“Captain Phillips”) is on-tap to be, she hopes, a willing investor in her madcap restaurant dream; and his wife (Heather Lind) is the pretty, cynical guardian against any renewed amorous interests on Brooke’s part. Various parents, the deus ex machina of the entire plot, hover dimly out of sight
As with all of Baumbach’s movies, there are many wonderfully well-observed moments and sharp, nicely written repartee. Gerwig skillfully manages to make a pretty unpleasant character come across as charming and attractive to us as she appears to her coterie of fans.
“Mistress America” is billed as a comedy, but the neurotic, emotionally stunted, self-centered, Woody Allen-ish characters whose lives we observe are anything but comic. This is really a story about the failure of relationships, all of which are loosely held together, woven into the story of Brooke’s misguided plans to turn her restaurant fantasy to reality.
The characters don’t so much as relate to one another as intersect. No one quite gets along with anyone else: jealousy, self-centeredness, greed and possessiveness rather than either love or affection are the only glues that (barely) hold the relationships together.
It’s as though the title is suggesting that in this modern hip urban universe, the selflessness of love and marriage has been replaced by the selfishness and transience of the Mistress with its connotation of slightly seedy loveless coupling.
There are meta-fictions at work here. For “Mistress America” is both the name of the movie and the name of Tracy’s short story, which is both a literary success and, possibly, just her own enamoured/jaundiced view of Brooke and her world.
Indeed, art itself can at worst be nothing more than a jaundiced, highly personal view of the world. What redeems it are the inner truths and human insights that free it from misanthropic distortion. Here, Tracy’s short story is seen less in the light of its literary achievement, more as a violation of friendship. Perhaps the ego-centricity we see of Brooke is really just a projection of Tracy’s own artistic selfishness. And the loose, episodic structure of the movie, where the relationships never quite feel real is simply Baumbach’s way of a reflecting Tracy’s still immature inability to process and fully understand the underlying dynamic of couples.
In other words we’re seeing “Mistress America” both as Baumbach’s and as Tracy’s story.
“Mistress America” (why America?) is a very mixed bag: fitfully brilliant and often silly. The story’s choppy, episodic structure, with several irrelevant scenes seemingly thrown in for no purpose other than humor, give the film a forced theatrical sensibility. This is rescued only by Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an intelligent, thoughtful writer (such a relief from Summer blockbuster rubbish), but his directorial storytelling still feels too self-conscious, too striving after a style that too often imposes itself on the story.
As a director he needs to chill and just go with the flow.