film Greta Gerwig

Mistress America Review: A Generation Playacting

Friday, August 28, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Mistress America

Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Seth Barrish
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available in limited release now.

Greta Gerwig has displayed, across two collaborations with director Noah Baumbach, the rare ability to simultaneously be the voice of a generation and also one of its primary skewers. That's a nearly impossible balancing act, but after playing the title character in Frances Ha (2013) and now Brooke in Mistress America, Gerwig has shown she fully understands her generation's anxieties and aspirations, but she has enough of a remove from them to take a satirical bite out of them.

As Brooke, Gerwig plays a 30-year-old self-proclaimed autodidact who can't stop dreaming about the great things she will do in her life long enough to follow through on them. She recognizes this, and she is so self-conscious to avoid projecting her in-progress failures. But of course, she can't help but project them. She keeps up her performance as a bubbly, million-ideas-a-second, worldly multi-hyphenate who is addicted to working in order to figure out what she's “selling” in life. In reality, she probably needs her multiple jobs to keep from being on the streets and she doesn't have much to offer in the way of tangible productivity. But you'll never catch her letting on to that fact, as she is too busy tweeting her life's grand narrative or pitching potential investors on the restaurant/community center/store/barbershop she wants to build. But it is a performance, and it marks the film's overarching theme.

For all that two-paragraph hullabaloo about latching onto a generation, Brooke is not Mistress America's lead character. Instead, her step-sister-to-be, Tracy (Lola Kirke), is the film's point of view. She's a college freshman at an all-female New York college and things aren't going so well for her. She's lonely, a writer trying to break into the school's literary society, admiring the briefcases they carry and general “writerly” affect. She's not assertive enough to make things happen for herself, so she quietly watches (and judges) her classmates make what she feels to be inane statements about literature. She's paralyzed, doing nothing.

Tracy's mom recommends that she give Brooke a call to get acquainted before they become step-sisters during Thanksgiving break. That is when the veteran performance giver takes the shy 18-year-old under her wing, bestowing learned wisdom – and plenty of short story material – to Tracy.

Soon Tracy begins putting on different personality hats herself. She gets a bit of a snarl, developing something of a me-first, “climbing the ladder of success” attitude. Much like her sort-of sister, she finds herself pulling away from, or self-sabotaging, the few relationships she has been able to cultivate in her short time away at school. But the thing is, she is no closer to achieving her goals than Brooke, always cultivating material, amassing “short stories” that are more reports of the things Brooke says than developing characters and situations for dramatic purposes. She's playing a writer.

The same goes for the movie's coterie of side characters. Like Brooke and Tracy, everyone in Mistress America is trying desperately to send an idealized version of themselves out into the world, but nobody ever succeeds for any meaningful length of time. Tracy's friends, a couple of fellow writers who can't stop fighting because of the threat of infidelity, can never articulate why they are so special. Brooke's former best friends, at whose suburban Connecticut house of luxury the movie's climax takes place, have these nouveau riche ambitions about self improvement and helping the world, but they're selfish (in silly ways).

Much of the film's comedy stems from the fact that everyone calls each other out for the phoniness of their performances. The harsh satire of it is that they don't really change their behavior – they either accept the artificial package for the fleeting moments of real connection or they fade back to their delusions.

With all that excellence, it's a little disappointing to see it be a film. Because it's not the most cinematic of stories. There is a lot of internal subtlety that could perhaps be fleshed out better in novel form – the running time is less than 90 minutes. The performances, particularly in the farcical climactic sequence, are so perfectly suited to a theatrical setting of bouncing and building off each other that it's enough to make you wish Baumbach wouldn't cut to different angles. To be fair, there are some moments of comedy that derive from the cinematic medium, with still shots taking in excellent reactions and instances of juxtaposition that earn laughs, but it struggles to justify itself as a movie.

It does not struggle as a piece of storytelling, though. It culminates in a speech by Gerwig that seems destined to become a new staple of high school and college theatre audition monologues – it's all about the guilt-shame cycle of looking at screens to avoid doing something with one's life, then feeling guilty about procrastinating. It's all a little silly and sad, and the smirks help make it easier to take. Even if it never quite asserts itself as essential cinema, it's near essential as a piece of generational satire.

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