Noah Baumbach has a unique fascination with telling stories of high-strung eccentric chatterboxes who aren’t always the most likable people to be around. Some are airy and naive. Others are astringent and self-absorbed. But despite each of their quirks, annoyances, or repellent personalities, I’ve always found myself fascinated with Baumbach’s strange and often self-destructive creations.
Enter “Mistress America”, an unusual amalgamation of all of the above. It features most of the normal Baumbach signatures – neurotic and/or insecure people, a ton of hip rapid-fire dialogue, and a bustling New York City backdrop. As with every other film of his, a big part of your reaction will be influenced by your opinions of the characters and your tolerance levels for them.
Baumbach’s favorite muse and girlfriend Greta Gerwig co-wrote the story and gets top billing, but the film is really about a girl named Tracy struggling to find her niche during her freshman year at college. She’s played by Lola Kirke who was very good in last year’s “Gone Girl”. Tracy feels like an outcast and can’t fit in with any of the typical college groups. Even the nerdy intellectuals pay her no attention except for a fellow writer named Tony (Matthew Shear). But even that relationship isn’t without its complexities.
Sensing her daughter’s melancholy, Tracy’s mom (Kathryn Erbe) encourages her to call up and connect with her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy is instantly smitten with Brooke’s panache and lively New York City lifestyle (stating in one scene “I can’t imagine the city without you”). Brooke talks a good game and seems to have her toe dipped in many of the city’s coolest waters. But as with many of these characters, there is reason for us to wonder if her life is truly all sunshine and roses.
For the most part “Mistress America” succeeds on the exact same level as most of Baumbach’s pictures. The characters are interesting even in their peculiar states and the story could be called a simple platform for their idiosyncratic philosophizing, witty banter, and self reflections. Dialogue is always a focus and most of it works as quirky intellectual comedy and drama. But this also feeds into a couple of the film’s issues. There are moments where the back-and-forths between characters feel too scripted. Other exchanges work noticeably hard to be intellectually cool. I’m also not sold on some of the comedy angles we get later in the film.
Embracing Noah Baumbach means dealing with certain blemishes and minor frustrations. At the same time his unique characters, rich dialogue, and sharp wit is more than enough to make up for them. This particular dive into the fashionable problems of big city millennials may not measure up with Baumbach’s best. Yet it still manages to capture what I enjoy about his films and the uniqueness of his formula is always satisfying.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS