Mistress America

October 29, 2015
Greta Gerwig in 'Mistress America' (2015)
Greta Gerwig in 'Mistress America' (2015)

When one character says her campus has just got a frozen yoghurt machine, and the other replies: “I watched my mother die”, you realise you’re watching a film in which everyone talks at cross-purposes. And talks, and talks.

Mistress America continues Noah Baumbach’s gradual metamorphosis into Woody Allen. This includes a high degree of productivity, as it was only in April that we saw Baumbach’s previous effort, While We’re Young. As with Allen’s films, the cast is overrun with chattering narcissists continually analysing their own actions.

Central to the plot, and increasingly central to Baumbach’s career, is his partner, Greta Gerwig. The couple wrote the script together and it comes across as one long rave. Gerwig is doing most of the raving in her role as Brooke Cardenas. It is a new variation on the ‘goofy but loveable’ persona she displayed in two previous Baumbach films – as the gormless Florence in Greenberg (2010) and as Frances in Frances Ha (2012) where she charmed viewers with her ability to bounce back from serial failures.

In this movie Gerwig takes the theme of ‘failure as a way of life’ onto another plane. The difference is that Brooke, who botches everything, considers herself to be a multi-talented superwoman. If nothing succeeds it’s because of bad luck and the machinations of other people.

What makes Brooke so fascinating – at least to her young friend, Tracy – is that she really is multi-talented, full of energy and ideas. Her problem is an inability to follow through on these brainstorms. Indeed, Brooke is so busy studying and extolling the ever-changing landscape of Self that she never manages to achieve anything.

Tracy, (newcomer, Lola Kirke), plays Boswell to Brooke’s Dr. Johnson. She has come to New York to attend Barnard College, and has no friends in the city. She wants to be a writer, but can’t break into the snooty campus literary society. Brace yourself for another film in which everyone wants to be a writer. This is true not only for Tracy but for Tony (Matthew Shear) a student with whom she strikes up a friendship, merely to see him pair off with a jealous girl called Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

This has the effect of making Tracy feel even more alone. She decides to ring Brooke, whom she is yet to meet, but whose father is is soon to be married to Tracy’s mother. Brooke responds at once, invites Tracy over, embraces her as a true sister, and gives her a whirlwind tour of her lifestyle. This involves singing a guest spot with a rock band; living in a Times Square apartment that is not zoned as residential; working as an interior decorator, a gym instructor and a maths tutor. Her big idea is to start a restaurant to be called Mom’s, which will be all things to all people. Her partner in this project is her boyfriend, Stavros, whom we never actually meet. Brooke says she’s in love with him, even though he’s the kind of person she hates.

To wide-eyed Tracy, 12 years younger than Brooke, this is dazzling material. She borrows one of Brooke’s ideas, for a comic strip called Mistress America, as the title of a short story in which her new sister is the thinly disguised protagonist.

This is Tracy’s defining moment at college. She has found her voice as a writer by doing what everyone does with Brooke – stealing her ideas and using her as a stepping stone. This manoeuvre will come back and haunt Tracy when she travels with Brooke, Tony and Nicolette to Connecticut, to track down Brooke’s old friends Dylan and Mamie-Claire (Michael Chernus and Heather Linde).

Not only did Mamie-Claire steal Dylan from Brooke, she also stole an idea for a T shirt, from which she made a lot of money. In a long sequence in the couple’s designer home, Brooke will try and convince Dylan to help fund her restaurant, while Tracy is made to face an impromptu star chamber and accept the consequences of her story.

Be warned, although some may find this amusing, the self-obsessed blather, the relentless pretentions of almost every character, will wear a hole in most viewers’ sympathies. One begins to see Brooke as truly pathetic, and Tracy as a nasty little schemer. The other characters find novel ways to make themselves obnoxious. I’ve watched the film twice, and experienced the same feeling of exhilaration giving way to an increasing irritation.

One wonders if we are meant to feel this way. Is there a social satire buried in this study of personality disorder? Baumbach issues a warning about the pathological urge to turn life into literature. Do this too often and you risk trashing both.

Mistress America
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Linde, Michael Chernus
USA, rated MA 15+, 84 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31st October, 2015.