Mistress America

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Mistress America

Rated: R / Runtime: 1h 26m

The second collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach and writer/actress Greta Gerwig, Mistress America is a funny, sweet condemnation and admiration of “creative types”.

The two main actresses, playing characters drawn together by the engagement of their parents, are wonderful. Greta Gerwig imbues vacuous New Yorker Brooke with a breezy warmth, like your best friend was a door-to-door saleswoman. She’s so immediately human that it becomes possible to fall in love with her and grow to hate her in the course of two hours. She’s also very, very funny. Her young admirer/sister-to-be Tracy is played, with a college freshman’s enthusiastically wry confidence, by Lola Kirke (most recently known for her brief supporting role in Gone Girl).

The movie can be tumultuous and indecisive, never settling on its target. This means the opening can be a jumble before we understand what our path will be. It’s not so much a bad thing as it is something to be prepared for so it doesn’t scare you off.

Baumbach certainly has a way with actors. Apart from the rollicking speed with which they are introduced, they all strike us with personality with an immediacy that doesn’t stem from any dialogue or written activity they’re doing when we see them, but from how they handle themselves and how they speak. Baumbach knows who each member of his supporting cast should be in his neurotic East Coast and he helps guide them there. The stand-out among the cast (and possibly the one with which Baumbach most closely relates) is Matthew Shear, playing Tracy’s overshadowed and superficially nice-guy classmate.

Baumbach also knows his city. New York is captured intimately; no skylines here. We get hallways and fire escapes and shuttered storefronts in the Village. Dim bars and taxi rides. We’re seeing the city from the perspective of Tracy’s outsider, but with Brooke as our guide.

The script is downright hilarious and touching, both absurdly ridiculous and fully fleshed-out. While most dialogue will be timeless, some references to Twitter grasp for modernity without needing to. There’s more to dive into here, but know that I laughed out loud multiple times. So did the other members of the audience I was with, and – as I saw it on a Friday at around 3:00 pm – they were very old. I think they liked the weed jokes most of all.

Mistress America is a movie about an inherent misanthropy in being a self-defined creative person. Brooke seems like a narcissistic sociopath for most of the film and at one point accuses Tracy of being one. It’s a parody of the creative process, throwing shade at idea theft (highlighting the rift between observation and participation) and the ever-evolving career paths of twenty-something bohemians.

Writers and observers are portrayed as looters of more exciting (more AUTHENTIC) people’s lives – the free-thinkers, the people we want to read about in books. But it also condemns those people.

Maybe living those lives isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly didn’t think too much of their type. Neither he nor Baumbach think we want that life. Their characters are self-important husks, fetishizing the homey and the earthy. They talk of opening rustic restaurants that can serve as hubs of community, boxing the connections they lack into a fantastical American Dream.

But without those people, the movie seems to say, life would be so boring for the rest of us. We need them, like we need doctors and farmers. At one point, Brooke complains that life should revert to feudalism with its defined social roles. Yet, they’re not gone, they’ve just become mutable. Without the mistake-making thirty-year olds clinging to their youth, an eighteen-year old student may never find her voice. Even the pretentious screw-ups have their place in the social ecosystem. Not only do they allow the more stable and mundane members to be thankful for their mortgages and marriages, but they liven the world with social entropy. If we were all like that, society would collapse, but life wouldn’t be recognizable without the Mistresses of America.

Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at http://www.shouldiwatchreviews.com or

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