The title of Noah Baumbach’s latest foray into the woes of privilege, Mistress America, comes from a short story written by its lead character Tracy (Lola Kirke). The inspiration for the story comes from her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an over-confident ball of energy walking a fine line between empathy and annoyance. She’s great material for Tracy’s writing, but it’s near-impossible to see why this film’s characters should be of interest to anyone.”
This is Baumbach returning to a well that has paid dividends for him of late. Earlier this year, While We’re Young saw Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts realize their youth was over, with intermittently funny attempts to prove otherwise. Gratingly arch as that film could be, at least its protagonists had a modicum of earnestness to which an audience could cling. They were grown-up outsiders looking in on a hipster world they couldn’t understand. With Mistress America, the confused, rambling and thoroughly annoying world of Millennial Arrested Development (MAD? You will be) is explored in a whirl of screwball rat-a-tat; the dialogue flows as if written without punctuation. The whole thing moves so fast that there’s scarcely any time to think, but if it slowed down the lack of interesting characters might show. Mistress America can’t afford to take its foot off the gas.
At a basic plot level, a clear throughline can be drawn from Baumbach’s last two efforts, While We’re Young and Frances Ha, to to this film. Tracy is an undergrad recently arrived in New York. Between her creative exploits (majoring in English at college, whilst seeking acceptance from the a ridiculously exclusive literary society) and an aloof nature, she’s well on her way to becoming Frances Halliday 2.0. Her journey is accelerated when she meets with Brooke, who takes Frances’ lack of life direction to a whole new level. Mistress America posits that Brooke’s ambling, shambling, not-giving-a-damn’bling existence is charming. It’s not; it’s annoying. Throughout the whole film, Brooke breathlessly states her intentions, opinions and plans before re-evaluating them in an even faster fashion. She blogs. She dabbles in interior design. She thinks up good one-liners, and then debates whether to tweet them or save them for a novel. Her incapacity to choose and be settled for even a moment proves oddly irresistible to Tracy, and grating to most everyone else (outside the world of this film, anyway).
Lest it sound like blame is being pinned on the actresses in question, their performances actually exonerate them. Tracy is an as-yet uncorrupted soul, and Kirke infuses her with a precious warmth that shields her from the tsunami of dirge posing as dialogue. Gerwig has a goofy physical presence (Her initial entrance sees her descend a staircase with a lack of grace only a born comedienne could do), but Brooke feels sadly one-note. The film (eventually) tries to pitch her lack of settlement as some kind of great tragedy, but her behaviour up to that point is so awkward and self-involved that caring becomes something of a difficulty. Gerwig does have to shoulder blame as co-writer (with Baumbach) of this tripe. The over-ripe dialogue veers from indulgent (“Of course it’s possible to hurt me. I’m the most sensitive person.”) to overly-knowing (“You are much more of an asshole than you initially appear.”) to sounding like PG-13 offcuts from Showgirls (“Sometimes I look like I have fat arms.” “I like fat arms.”).
The film comes to a grating apex in the second act, as Brooke takes decisive action. She and Tracy go to see Brooke’s ex Dylan (Michael Chernus) at his well-appointed home to plead for funding for her new restaurant. Tracy and Brooke have to get a lift there from Tracy’s ex Tony (Matthew Shear) and his very jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones). The non-stop chatter that begins in that car ride spills into Dylan’s house, where his wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) provides more sarkiness to fuel Brooke’s bitterly upbeat ramblings. For 84 minutes, and especially in this upstate sojourn, the characters never seem to shut up, even for a minute. Even when a former classmate chastises Brooke for her cruel teenage behaviour in the film’s one true reach for poignancy, Brooke’s self-assured shrugging off of said accusations comes with little hesitancy. Baumbach’s blend of New Age wryness and deprecation comes at the cost of earnestness or identifiable emotions. It’s all mouth, a busy little head and no heart.
If Mistress America wasn’t in such a rush to its destination, it might have paused and looked at the annoyance it causes. If it wasn’t for the two guiding lead performances, the viewer would be truly lost in its fog of smug. That said, this journey isn’t to be recommended anyway. It’s just too motor-mouthed and impatient to be tolerable.