Friday, September 4, 2015

Mistress America (opens in Cleveland September 4th at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[MISTRESS AMERICA opens in Cleveland on Friday September 4th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Noah Baumbach has a penchant for writing irritating, difficult leading characters. He followed up his acclaimed, semi-autobiographical THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) with darker pieces like MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007) and GREENBERG (2010), centering on neurotic, narcissistic personalities: Nicole Kidman's Margot, a short-story writer who wreaks havoc at her sister's wedding, and Ben Stiller as Greenberg, a damaged, volatile 40-year-old ne'er-do-well.

Brooke, the New York dilettante at the center of his new film, MISTRESS AMERICA, is also a complicated personality. A bright, lively blonde with seemingly limitless plans and vocations, she has a sunny persona that hides a bitter, even cruel nature. Brooke becomes the object of admiration, and adoration, when Tracy, a Barnard freshman with literary aspirations, starts hanging out with her. Tracy's mom is engaged to marry Brooke's dad, and urges Tracy to get to know her new “sister.” She spends an evening with Brooke, who greets her at Times Square by descending a crimson staircase at the subway á la Busby Berkeley, with open arms and a cry of “Welcome to the Great White Way!” Brooke's dashing lifestyle captivates Tracy, who's having a hard time fitting into the college social scene and has just been rejected for membership in a literary society that hazes recruits by pelting them with pies in their dormitory beds.

Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, is a manic whirlwind. She sings with a band at a club, leads Soul Cycle classes, courts investors for a restaurant she wants to open, tutors junior high students, “freelances” as an interior decorator, posts frantically on social media, and talks nonstop, mostly about herself. Like a prettier, blond version of Greenberg, Brooke is a self-described autodidact who has many ideas but lacks what the another character calls “follow-through.”

There are clouds behind the sunshine. Brooke rants bitterly about a former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who stole not only Brooke's idea for a T-shirt line but also her wealthy fiancé and her cats. The screenplay, which Gerwig co-wrote with Baumbach, also hints at Brooke's sociopathic malevolence. In a bar one night, a forgotten high school classmate confronts Brooke and recites the mean things she did to her in school. Brooke shrugs it off.

Tracy nonetheless finds Brooke fascinating, like a modern-day Holly Golightly. The aspiring author takes to her laptop and writes a short story profiling her idol. Writers often figure heavily in the films of Baumbach, the New York-born son of a novelist and a film critic. There was the New Yorker short-story author mom in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, short-story writer Margot, the documentary filmmaker in last year's uncharacteristically funny WHILE WE'RE YOUNG. Tracy's writing, not unlike that of Truman Capote, her unacknowledged model, is preternaturally mature and insightful. “She did everything and nothing,” Tracy writes. “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself, not like her.” Baumbach's lament for the old ways of doing things is reflected in Tracy's retrograde ambitions (short story writing) and antique methods (printing out stories on onionskin paper).Tracy shares her writing with her best friend and fellow literary outcast, Tony (Matthew Shear), who's a little envious. (Literary jealousy is another Baumbach theme.)

On the advice of a psychic, Brooke decides to mend fences with Mamie-Claire, now living in Connecticut with husband Dylan, Brooke's ex-fiancé. (It's mildly amusing when the man two women are fighting over turns out to be the chubby, bearded Michael Chernus.) Brooke recruits Tracy, who enlists Tony and his insanely jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), on a road trip to seek Dylan's investment in her planned restaurant. After they arrive at the Dylan-Mamie Claire home, the movie descends into clumsy farce: a book club of pregnant ladies discussing Faulkner, Nicolette's bitter jealousy of Tracy, Dylan flirting with Brooke, a pregnant woman waiting for a husband who never arrives, a lugubrious neighbor who strolls into the house uninvited. It's as though someone changed the channel during BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S and stumbled on Adam Sandler's GROWN UPS. The more interesting story elements, such as the rocky relationship of Tracy's mom and Brooke's dad, take place offscreen.

Baumbach and Gerwig's writing is often devastating in its raw psychological honesty. “I can't figure out how to make myself work in the world,” Brooke admits when her plans fall apart. But the film is dogged by staginess; characters make long, robotic speeches that feel like acting-class exercises. Baumbach's style has much in common with his sometime collaborator, Wes Anderson, but without Anderson's whimsical touch and, more importantly, heart.

The film works as a sketch of an unusual, confounding character and a portrait of a fading New York lifestyle. It is less successful as a coherent, entertaining story. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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