REVIEW: “Mistress America”


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.


3.5 stars

REVIEW: “While We’re Young”


Noah Baumbach has made a career out of making movies about unlikable or generally unhappy characters. Many of his walking human complexities exist in various stages of lethargy, denial, or dissatisfaction. But at the same time the characters he creates drip with humanity and they are fascinating to watch. Yet with all of that being said, I don’t always fully go for his movies.

“While We’re Young” is another of Baumbach’s mixed bags. It is a sincere and genuinely human comedy that connects due to its observational honesty and its willingness to address real emotional struggles. But like a few other Baumbach projects, it doesn’t fully see its promise through and the final act of the film wanders away from what makes the story initially so compelling.


Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a middle-aged couple living in New York City. Their past difficulties in having a baby are highlighted with the birth of their best friends’ daughter. Josh and Cornelia attempt to brush aside their feelings of disappointment and unfulfillment by focusing on the freedoms they have as a family of two. But even that is effected by the plain ol’ fact that they are just getting old.

Josh is a movie documentarian who has been stuck in the rut of an eight year film project that shows no signs of nearing completion. After teaching a continuing education class at a local college he is approached by young twenty something couple Jamie and Darby Massey (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The Massey’s invite Josh and Cornelia to dinner where we learn Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a huge fan of Josh’s first film.

Josh and Cornelia grow infatuated with their new young hipster friends and their exaggerated retro styles. They feel young and energetic whenever they are around Jamie and Darby and they begin feeling a disconnect with their old friends. But is this simply a refuge from their insecurities about getting older, or is the old adage correct – you’re only as old as you feel?

For most of the film Baumbach explores that question through a number of smart and witty conversations and situations. We see the Schrebnick’s, particularly Josh, open up and embrace new things. He puts aside some of his closed-minded, exclusionist perspectives and sees creativity and life in general through a new lens. But at the same time Baumbach is shrewdly pointing a finger, not at Josh but at the Masseys; asking compelling questions about the younger generation.


Baumbach’s film works on so many levels but it also has its flaws. Stiller and Watts each convincingly play their individual parts. Yet there are moments where I couldn’t quite buy into them as a couple. There are also a few moments where the normal sharp wit gives way to the juvenile. For example, an Ayahuasca scene leads to a running vomit gag that never seems to end. I mean who doesn’t laugh at vomit, right? And the biggest problem is in the last act when the story loses its focus a bit and ventures off in a direction that simply wasn’t that interesting.

Baumbach is a unique filmmaker who tells unique stories. His tales rarely venture outside of his confined view of life, love, and relationships but that’s what provides his films with their own flavor. “While We’re Young” gives its audience things to ponder and to chew on while also being deftly funny and unflinchingly human. It just can’t quite see its strengths through till the end. It’s still a good film. Not “Frances Ha” good but hey…


3.5 stars