Movie Review: “Mistress America”

Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Noah Baumbach

Real-life couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig clearly enjoy working together, but their films are far from enjoyable. The pair’s first collaboration, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” was a painfully obtuse look at self-entitled millennials living in New York City, and although “Mistress America” isn’t as bad, it covers a lot of the same ground while forcing yet another group of mostly unlikable characters down the audience’s throat. Last year, Baumbach directed a movie about a similar subject (“While We’re Young”) without Gerwig’s involvement, and the reason that film was such a success is because it skewered the faux-intellectual hipster crowd from the outside looking in. The problem with “Mistress America,” however, is that its main characters are just like the people Baumbach so effectively mocked in his previous outing; they’re great comic fodder, but they don’t make for very endearing company.

Lola Kirke stars as Tracy Fishko, a lonely college freshman at Barnard College with high hopes of being accepted into the school’s exclusive literary magazine. She hasn’t had much luck making friends, save for fellow wannabe writer Tony (Matthew Shear), so her mother suggests that she get in touch with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in the city. Brooke is more than happy to take the impressionable Tracy under her wing, and after a night on the town together, the two become inseparable. Tracy idolizes Brooke, using her wild social life as inspiration for a new short story, while Brooke loves that someone so intelligent could look up to her. But when Brooke’s latest business endeavor, a terribly conceived restaurant/hair salon/community center, loses one of its key investors, she brings Tracy with her to Connecticut to convince some wealthy college friends – former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and frenemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) – to bail her out.

“Mistress America” wants to have its cake and eat it too. While the movie is technically about Tracy’s journey into adulthood, as soon as Brooke enters the fray, the focus immediately turns to her, unfairly shoving Tracy into the background. Brooke is self-important, borderline delusional and incredibly obnoxious – the kind of person who talks and talks without ever saying anything of actual substance – and though that’s obviously the way the character was written, she’s such a self-made calamity that it’s difficult to empathize with her, no matter how hard Baumbach tries to win you over. In fact, with the exception of Tracy, whose naivety somewhat justifies her poor decision making, all of the characters are so shallow and insufferable that the film is quite exhausting, especially as it plunges into screwball territory during the climactic centerpiece at Dylan’s house.

Much like Brooke’s proposed restaurant, “Mistress America” is a mishmash of ideas that never really comes together. There are some interesting views on intellectual property and artistic license (particularly in relation to Tracy’s largely biographical short story) littered throughout the movie, but Baumbach is so fascinated by Gerwig’s human tornado of a character that he never has the chance to fully explore them. “Mistress America” does have one saving grace: newcomer Lola Kirke, an indie star in the making who outperforms the amateurish Gerwig at every turn. Unlike her overrated co-star, Kirke is the real deal, and Baumbach would be wise to find a way to showcase her talents even more in the future, preferably without Gerwig around to hog the spotlight once again.