Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Mistress America

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Noah Baumbach's "Mistress America" may be more of a minor entry in the director's oeuvre, but it's still a charming, funny and emotionally engaging picture. Co-written by Greta Gerwig, who also stars and previously worked with Baumbach on the lovely "Frances Ha," the film is a good showcase for both the filmmaker and actress.

Clocking in at a breezy 85 minutes, the movie wastes no time setting up its scenario: lonely college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) is having difficulty making friends at school during her first semester in New York and she is passed up by the literary society in which she aims to ingratiate herself. She befriends classmate and fellow writer Tony (Matthew Shear), but he is soon whisked away by the jealous and gloomy Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), leaving Tracy to wallow on her own.

However, her mother tells her that the daughter of the man whom she is about to marry lives in New York and suggests that Tracy look her up. She tracks down Brooke (Gerwig), a thirty-something with many ambitions, but few actual prospects who spends her days teaching classes at Soul Cycle, tutoring middle school children, freelancing as an interior decorator and planning a restaurant that most people in Brooke's orbit doubt will come to fruition.

Brooke is a classic Baumbach character, although Gerwig is likely most responsible for her creation - insecure, bitingly funny, neurotic and exhibiting delusions of grandeur, but also wanting to become a better person. The filmmaker's body of work in recent years has included the great "The Squid and the Whale" and "Greenberg," but also the very good "Frances Ha," "While We're Young" and "Margot at the Wedding." Although "Mistress America" is not quite on par with some of those films, it's still often very funny and a solid story about friendship and the artistic process.

The film is centered around several set pieces, if that's the right expression here. The first is Tracy's first time hanging out with Brooke, an all-nighter that culminates with a hilariously awkward encounter between Brooke and a former grade school classmate. The second is a trip to Connecticut during which Brooke, Tracy, Tony and Nicolette corner and accost Brooke's former best friend, who allegedly stole her fiance and an idea for a T-shirt design that brought in a fair amount of money.

Much like the films of Woody Allen - to whom he is often compared - Baumbach's films have simple, dialogue driven setups with a minimalist visual style, but rich writing and characterizations. "Mistress America" is no exception - both Gerwig and Kirke inhabit their characters, which are finely drawn and imperfect, but sympathetic.

Perhaps, the film's brisk pace, which is especially noticeable in the first 30 minutes, and short running time give the movie a bit of a rushed feeling, so that by the time we come to the end we want to spend more time with these people. But that's at least a sign that the picture is working. "Mistress America" is a charmer. While it's more of a minor film and not quite as good as Baumbach's other 2015 movie - the very funny and wise "While We're Young" - it's certainly worth a look.

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