I wasn’t as fond as I thought I would be of the movie that my wife Sandy and I went to see recently. Sandy told me that various critics have heaped praises upon said flick, Mistress America, some calling it a screwball comedy in the grand old Hollywood tradition of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges. I saw the movie differently. I found it to be as much a drama as a comedy, as bittersweet as it is funny. And as for screwball, which can be great . . . well, Mistress America’s try at the madcap art form encompasses not the entire movie at all, settling instead for one long and uncomfortable segment in the second half. I didn’t have much fun with that interlude. A collection of intersections involving most of the movie’s cast, it felt flat and strained to me, out of place with the decidedly tilted but more realistic antics and people-play that populated the rest of the film. In other words, Mistress America overextended its ambitions. It would have been a better movie if its creators, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, had kept their eyes on the wry and poignant, and left the supposedly wild and crazy alone. My rating? Two, maybe two and a half out of four stars.
Mistress America revolves around a small parade of characters led by Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig) and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke). Brooke is a 30ish lady on the go, an at-times free spirit who cobbles together a living in New York City by leading exercise classes, doing interior decorating, whatever it takes. Her dream is to open a restaurant slash hair salon slash hangout in Lower Manhattan called Mom’s, a place where customers will settle in and feel really comfortable. A wifty notion possibly, but who knows? Brooke already has signed a lease for the empty space she plans to transform, and is in the process of assembling financial backing. She’s committed, and several steps ahead of herself.
Into Brooke’s life enters Tracy, a Barnard College freshman not connecting very well to the college scene in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At Mistress America’s outset, Tracy and Brooke have never met. Tracy learns of Brooke’s existence from her mother, who has plans to tie the knot with Brooke’s father. Following her mom’s suggestion, Tracy gives her stepsister-to-be a call. They meet, they bond, and the slings and arrows and goofy twists of fortune begin to fly.
Excising the unwieldy aforementioned portion of Mistress America, what we’re left with is an observant study of two women looking for some answers. Tracy is young, an introvert, and beginning what appears will be a very long process of self-discovery. I’m not placing heavy bets on her ever finding peace and contentment. She can be nasty and guileful, sides of her personality she might not have known were alive till the forceful Brooke’s influence poked them to the surface.
Brooke on the other hand is a longtime gung-ho trooper. Disappointments have peppered her life, but on she goes, pushing aside her doubts and sadnesses as she seeks the next opportunity or person that might set her on the true path. Late in the movie Brooke offhandedly takes a deep look inside and throws out some comments that almost are on target. To Tracy she says something to the effect of “I know everything about myself. That’s why I can’t do therapy.” Actually, she knows so much that, I think, she scares herself. And keeps on running.
Baumbach and Gerwig, a real life couple, have been feeling their collaborative artistic juices the last few years. They cowrote Mistress America, and Baumbach directed. Ditto for 2013’s Frances Ha, which resembles Mistress America in that it centers upon a young woman who stumbles a lot in life. Frances, though, is several notches below Brooke on the got-it-together scale. Gerwig starred in Frances Ha, and I wasn’t sure if she would have the acting chops to differentiate her leading roles. I am glad to report that she does. Her Brooke is a complicated soul, usually energized and with a gleam in her eyes, but down enough times that my good wishes went out to her. Mistress America, despite its big ol’ flaw, offers plenty to chew on.
(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on it, a larger image will open)
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