September 04, 2015

Mistress America

I am Jill's Meet Cute

Grade: D
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Michael Chernus
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 24 min.

There’s a path Mistress America could have taken early that might have salvaged this pretentious farce. Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman suffocating inside the social circles of Barnard College in New York City. After being rebuffed by a would-be boyfriend, Tony (Matthew Shear), and the snooty campus literary society, Tracy rings Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her 30-year-old stepsister-in-waiting. Tracy’s mom is about to marry Brooke’s dad, and the effervescent (and lonely) Brooke is happy to introduce the doting Tracy to the verve of Brooke’s cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Tracy’s lit life, as dour as her ever-present pullover sweater, throws the autodidact Brooke’s dinner parties, bar crooning and grand plans to open a restaurant/hair salon into such sharp relief that you wonder if you’re observing a Fight Club-style conceit, with Brooke embodying Tracy’s illusory id.

”I am Jill's Spinning Classes.”

Alas, Brooke proves all too actual as Mistress America aims to lambast millennial angst through the construct of a screwball comedy. The script soon settles into Tracy and Brooke’s insufferable byplay (eventually spreading to the rest of the cast), yammered without the use of pesky punctuation. The rapid-fire repartee in screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s was largely the consequence of writers and performers still geared towards the vaudevillian stage. This screenplay by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach is pure pastiche, written with a tin ear for the way sentient beings actually community with each other.

Brooke speaks of starting a cabaret called “High Standards,” in which she’ll perform songs about lofty moral aspirations and ambitions. Discussing an ex-boyfriend who was a geologist, she observes how “it’s weird that someone so into rocks can be into Jesus.” On and on it goes as the bon mots land like bunker busters, and when Brooke makes intentionally awkward references to sending “a tweet on Twitter” and “a gram on Instagram,” it make Baumbach sound like an old man yelling at clouds.

“I am Jill's faux Woody Allen.”

Tracy soon realizes that Brooke’s flighty countenance masks an arrogance and insecurity feeding her arrested adulthood. Brooke incessantly discusses a frenemy named Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind)—yes, everyone calls her that—who once stole her boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus), her cats and her idea for “really hard-looking” flower print T-shirts. The film shifts its third act to Dylan and Mamie-Claire’s mod Greenwich, Connecticut home so Brooke can beg for restaurant startup funds. The result is a parlor scene in which the inane dialogue amps up. A panoply of inconsequential supporting characters join in, including Mamie-Claire’s pregnant attorney friend, a nosey neighbor and Tony’s outlandishly paranoid girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who believes he wants to “sext” every girl he meets.

Everyone soons discovers that Tracy has turned Brooke’s flighty, unfulfilled life into a short story designed to finally get Tracy admitted into that lit society. “You don’t read fiction,” Mamie-Claire reminds Dylan. “I do when it’s about my friends,” he responds. *rimshot*

“I am Jill's Warby Parker Spectacles.”

It all goes nowhere except a cloying climax not befitting the film’s supposedly edgy fa├žade. Beyond the annoying script and unlikeable characters, the gnawing problem with Mistress America is that while Baumbach and Gerwig make passing attempts at skewering millennials, it feels like a New York milieu with which they are both intimately familiar and fond. It’s self-effacement bordering on self-referential, resulting in a work so farcical that it’s insulated from offending anyone, except the audience.

Where’s Tyler Durden when you need him?

“I am Jill's Smug, Strained Social Satire.”

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