Last updateThu, 18 Jan 2018 3am


Greta Gerwig Shines in “Mistress America”

Mistress AmericaAn article I read on Indiewire heralded Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and Noah Baumbach’s/Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America as the revisionist screwball comedies of our generation, or at least of this summer. In these cases, I refuse to refer to Trainwreck as director Judd Apatow’s film. Though I found the film to be mostly devoid of laughs, any point during which the film could be even remotely funny is completely independent of him and due to Schumer’s so-so screenplay and Bill Hader’s wonderful performance. 

It is in these cases, however, that Mistress America fully belongs to co-writers Baumbach and Gerwig, the former directing with a precision and warmth rare among independent filmmakers today and the latter starring and bringing soul to the film. Baumbach has been making films for twenty years, starting off with Kicking & Screaming—not you, Will Ferrell—which brought together upper class protagonists who articulate with wit and fierceness, and who act as if they had all the time in the world to spar verbosely. Though that film is wonderful, it’s not difficult to understand why people might find the characters insufferable and thus turn away from it. 

Since the creative pairing between Gerwig and Baumbach, however, and since the effervescent Frances Ha in 2012, things have taken a warmer, more incisive and very down-to-earth turn. This all comes together in their newest film, Mistress America, which is a film that perhaps begins and ends too quickly, and thus feels more like an exercise. It also feels like an idea that needed to be gotten out of their heads before they lost the passion for it, and thus you can sense which scenes they enjoyed writing and filming most, lending to the film an uneven and sloppy quality. 

This should be of no matter though, because even Baumbach’s exercises are endlessly fascinating. If anything, the film confirms two things: his place as one of the sharpest directors in film today, and Gerwig’s place as one of modern cinema’s wittiest and most fearless actresses.

The film begins with Tracey Fishcoe (Lola Kirke) just starting college in New York. Things never seem to work out with regards to what she wants: her mother is distant and misunderstands Tracey’s loneliness, and Tracey feels apprehensive about her mother marrying again. She hopes to get into a literary society at school, along with a boy who shares her passion for fiction writing and for whom she develops a crush on. He, however, ends up with another girl soon after, and the surprise and pain carries into two scenes—one, which is sudden, where we see him holding hands, and the next, which is among the film’s most beautiful scenes, where she is eating alone at a restaurant, staring at her phone’s cracked screen and listening to Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” on the loudspeaker. 

It is when she decides to call up her soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Gerwig), that the film immediately propels itself forward. Gerwig embodies Brooke as a woman who tries her best to embody the whole of New York. Maybe she succeeds and maybe she does not, but what matters is that she convinces herself and everyone else of her liveliness. Brooke brags, begins business ventures without finishing them, seeks pity by mentioning tragedy and not even realizing it, and is altogether wonderful and charming. In this role, Gerwig is a revelation. Unlike the projected toughness and active fearlessness of an actress like Jennifer Lawrence, Gerwig instead is unafraid to come across as foolish, and is nevertheless completely comfortable with herself. To want to be taken seriously, but not too seriously, demands a highly specific screen persona and more courage than the average movie star can muster. 

The film’s central themes, which involve the feeling of finding someone resembling a sibling within your friends, finding the power to be happy through honesty, and humbling yourself before past mistakes, are painted simultaneously as beautiful and painful, and without compromise to make the characters more likable or less pathetic. 

It is also within the themes and characters that the film takes hanging turns instead of abrupt right angles. This is Mistress America’s greatest strength and also its most glaring weakness. Time and again, I expected the characters to conform to normal movie character behavior. If not always well drawn, they are at the very least unexpected and convincing. Tracey, for instance, will go after Tony (Matthew Shear), the boy from the beginning, by insulting both his intelligence through the fiction he’s written and his taste in women through his girlfriend. At the same time, she is also pursuing him, a power she finds in herself after meeting Brooke. 

However, especially towards the end, the film begins to take a subtle turn from humanist and witty character study to screwball comedy with drama that feels both ironic and heartfelt. The comedy of the first two-thirds of the film are coming from the characters and establishes the world as nearly real. The last third feels like the comedy is coming out of the world instead of the characters, and in order for that to work, the world needs to be established first with an ‘anything goes’ attitude. Though the comedy is indeed funny, and speaks to Noah Baumbach’s talents as a director to shift gears so subtly, it also feels out of place. Baumbach calls to mind the screwy nature of an Ernst Lubitsch film or Paper Moon by Peter Bogdanovich, but he forgets to take from these styles and morph it into the film that Mistress America had been up until that point is reached. The mise-en-scène and the script suggest a surrealism in which the type of comedy that comes, which involves characters leaping out of perceived natures to ridiculous ones and a back-and-forth between them that necessitates a whackier sensibility than a witty one, does not match up with the rest of the film’s freewheeling and naturalistic attitude that preceded these scenes. 

Yet, it speaks to the film’s power that even the weakest aspects still achieve their intended effect. Yes, the movie attempts to be other movies at once, and yes, the film seems too simplistic at times. However, there’s a power and deep reaching incisiveness that makes the film successful no matter the criticisms that I have. I think, too, the film succeeds either in part of or because of the feeling of effortlessness that pervades the movie. It certainly isn’t the funniest movie of the year, nor is it the most heartwarming, and thus it frees itself from any constraints to please a mass audience and succeeds because it doesn’t try too hard to be either of those. It tells a story and tells it well, looking at the joys and pains of characters that we may see in movies these days, but we rarely see them in this way.

IMAGE TAKEN from scpr.org

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