MISTRESS AMERICA, comedy, rated R, Violet Crown, 2.5 chiles
Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America strains mightily at madcap comedy, hitting its mark sporadically, more often missing the beat. It keeps up a self-consciously breathless pace, hoping we will take it as something smartly screwball and lighter-than-air while we recognize the thoughtful bass notes of angst that lurk in the shadows of its modern lost-generational characters.
The screenplay, by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, his muse, companion, and star, finds Tracy (Lola Kirke), an eighteen-year-old freshman at Barnard College, experiencing the misfit loneliness of a smart kid away from home for the first time and finding herself swimming in an intellectual current that is fast and indifferent. She aspires to membership in the prestigious Mobius Literary Society but is rejected. She makes a tentative friend of Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow literary hopeful, but any romantic illusions are snuffed out when he takes up with the grumpy, jealous Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).
She is finally reduced to calling her future stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), whose widowed father is marrying Tracy’s divorced mother at Thanksgiving. Tracy and Brooke have never met, and Brooke is a dozen years older. But the chemistry is instant. It’s Patrick Dennis and Auntie Mame, a life-changing combustion of impressionable youth and irresistible force, as Brooke takes “Baby Tracy” under her wing and sweeps her into a giddy new orbit of glamorous friends, hip culture, and grand plans.
The grandest of these plans is a restaurant Brooke wants to start, apparently the latest in a string of windmills in the air at which she tilts with an optimism untempered by past experience. She has some financing lined up, and a space on hold, but it’s all very tenuous; when things begin to fall apart, it triggers a third-act road trip to visit a rich former boyfriend (Michael Chernus) in Connecticut in search of backing.
Tracy, meanwhile, has undergone a character metamorphosis that is not entirely convincing. Dazzled by her flamboyant soon-to-be-sister, she has taken those first impressions and fashioned them into a short story built on a sharp, sardonic character sketch that is a thinly fictionalized version of Brooke. The story will be her renewed application to Mobius, and what could go wrong?
The best part of this movie is the introduction of Brooke, with her high hopes and boundless energy, and there are laughs and smiles and an era of good feeling, carried by rapid-fire dialogue that is sometimes very funny, even if it often comes off more as writing than speech. But it slips away like the best-laid plans, which weren’t that well-laid in the first place. The characters wear out their welcome, the zingers turn sour, and the air seeps out of the balloon. — Jonathan Richards
Uptown girls: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke