Dear Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach,
Mistress America is one of those films that left me grinding my teeth in frustration at the waste of intelligence that, for me, is intrinsic to your work. There is something base in commidifying the banality of your own existence. Moderately clever, over-educated people bereft of any real meaning in their life magicing up this daily theatre of the absurd, mostly in an effort to insulate themselves from existential despair, makes for some pretty shite filmmaking.
Look, it is clear that I’m hostile to your aesthetic sensibilities, making it difficult for me to address this film in a way that isn’t going to reek of contempt. It may be that I’m missing something significant in Mistress America, some subtle nuance that is obvious to others. But to me this film was so utterly tone deaf, so buried in its own navel, that I could not find a moment that redeemed it.
With one exception.
Early in Mistress America—before the descent into a literal farce that occupies the last third of the film—there is a scene where the failed Manic Pixie Dream Girl Brooke (that’s you Greta) and the naïve freshman ingénue Tracy (your soon to be step sister played by Lola Kirke) are having a drink in a dive-y Manhattan bar. A former schoolmate of Brooke’s recognizes her and comes over to the table. Initially Brooke seems delighted, perhaps expecting some sycophantic murmurings. Instead the mood shifts abruptly when Brooke’s former classmate details some particularly cruel behavior she had suffered at Brooke’s hand—behavior that apparently spanned the whole of the former classmate’s high school experience. It is a really lucid and well-articulated scene where Brooke is faced with the distance between her perception of herself and the reality of who she really is.
If the whole film had been in that key this would have been a more interesting experience. Instead that moment and all its implications are disappeared like a mouthy protester in a banana republic—never to be seen again. After that the film descends into a messy parable about the ethics of using the personal experience of others as a career booster for your burgeoning writing career.
Tracy, having been taken under the fluttery and inconstant wing of Brooke, uses the low comedy that she witnesses as a springboard to minor literary success. This, of course, leads to a contrived rift between her and Brooke, who after spending a good two thirds of the film drenched in an endless and very public self-revelation, suddenly takes exception to the details being shared with some first year lit students.
The only other contact Tracy has in New York (she has just arrived as a college freshman) is among the many clichés that dot the landscape of this film—the Woody Allen–esque, bird-necked Lothario, played fitfully by Matthew Shear. There is also the regretful hedge fund manager and his self-admitted golddigger of a wife, as well as the usual assortment of wind up dolls that often populate Baumbach’s films. There isn’t a character in this film that doesn’t scan as a ‘character in a film’. Mistress America rarely escapes from its own cleverness.
Hasn’t this kind of particularly New York-centric dramedy passed its expiration date? Mistress America feels listless and played out, and most of all irrelevant. The performances are both somehow manic and flat and the whole exercise seems small-minded in its obsession with people who can’t decide which of thirty-five different options of ice cream they might choose, especially when so many of their fellow New Yorkers would be happy with any one of those cones.
Or maybe it’s just me.