“You can’t really know what it is to want things until you’re at least 30.”
With Mistress America, the second wide release feature this year from Noah Baumbach following While We’re Young, the filmmaker has become the new definition of average. The troubling thing about his movies, or the most disconcerting, is how much initial promise all of them have, and Mistress America is one of his most conceptually routine yet thoroughly detailed pictures. What at once starts as an engrossing and quixotically hypnotic tale of the modern female and all of her definitions and formalities becomes a two-dimensional comedy of manners, brimming with forceful and forgettable dialogue and performed with forthrightness rather than the initial charming and realistic hesitance. We can see through the guise and the repetition and the staging. Mistress America is a long 84 minutes, and while Baumbach’s movies typically run short, they all suffer from premature ejaculation. The fun and excitement end, the romp continues, and you lay there waiting for it to finish, wishing it had the finesse the make the pit stop affair into an all-inclusive vacation.
As a college freshman in New York City, Tracy (Lola Kirke) faces the challenges of leaving the nest with no knowledge of the landing site. She’s alone and clueless and dispirited. Tracy is a writer, trying to make her way into a close-knit campus group, submitting short stories and vacantly going about the life of a first year. Mistress America covers this journey with her, and the beginning is so enchanting because, like anyone who shipped away to college could affirm, you never really know what’s in store. College can be more of an objective touchstone than an educational step or leap pad, and the film harps on that with acute observation before it eventually takes its focus elsewhere. Tracy feels solitude and awkwardness and even romance, showcasing Baumbach’s occasional grasp for memorable writing when Tracy tells her bespectacled suitor, sitting against the hood of his car, “We look like we’re in a song.” They do, and Mistress America really translates the confusion of embarking towards an adventurous adulthood in its opening 30 minutes.
It’s not until she meets her eventual sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig) that Tracy begins to find herself and form an identity. Brooke’s life is a menagerie of careers and interests and goals, seemingly successful but also dependent on her frantically fledgling lifestyle. She’s one of those people who is so busy living that they don’t absorb enough art and culture to credibly comment on anything. But, living is her art, and she does it well, and fully, and commendably. Mistress America creates a bond between these two, both wonderfully played by Kirke and Gerwig, that can sometimes be co-dependent yet is also about revealing hidden personality traits. Sometimes those who seem to have it together are actually the most lost, with the same being true vice versa. It takes awareness to understand that. Mistress America does, only until it falls apart.
Baumbach’s trademark writing habit is to make a story endearing and insightful before becoming rushed and unconvincing. Similar to While We’re Young, a great piece of filmmaking for 45 minutes, he oddly chooses to switch storytelling styles and loses his sense of time. We like his characters and their insecurities and manageable problems. His films start with a loose quality that helps us relax into the story, then he changes, ditching the languid naiveté for uptight sermons. The dialogue forgets cadence and resonance, whipping by so fast and loudly that it fails to sink in, and the end effect becomes forgettable and seemingly disinterested with itself. Baumbach could have said a lot here but chooses to only say a little. How men see women, how women see men, and how they tend to see each other and themselves. Mistress America wants to introduce us to the rights and wrongs of the cultural definition of femininity without any of the implications of the words chosen for its own title. There is no ownership, and certainly little to no pride.
“Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.”
Rating: 3 out of 5