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New Release Review - MISTRESS AMERICA

A wannabe writer strikes up a friendship with her soon to be step-sister.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig




"At one point Mistress America morphs into an almost self-contained one-act play. It's in this sequence that Gerwig takes over the movie, prowling around like the love-child of Carole Lombard and Katherine Hepburn, and it's all the better for it."



With his last movie, While We're Young, barely out of cinemas, we already have Noah Baumbach's latest effort, yet another New York set comedy drama that owes more than a little to Woody Allen. Though I enjoyed While We're Young, I expressed my disappointment at the sidelining of the characters played by Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried, who amounted to little more than convenient plot devices designed to cause conflict between the film's male protagonists. No such accusations can be levelled at Baumbach's rapidly turned around Mistress America; the ladies are front and centre here, with Baumbach's other half Greta Gerwig sharing writing duties.
It seems every other week now we're introduced to some promising ingenue, and the latest is Lola Kirke, a British born actress who couldn't look more French if she hung a string of garlic around her gamine neck. She plays Tracy, a fresher at a New York college whose sole focus is on getting accepted into the college's literary society, who announce their acceptance of your prose by busting into your dorm room in the middle of the night and planting a pie in your face. Despite leaving short stories in their application box, Tracy's nights are never disturbed. Her prose is uninspired, until she finds her muse in the form of Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the decade older woman set to become her step-sister, should their engaged parents follow through with their marriage plans.
A narcissistic loudmouth who believes a conversation requires two participants - herself and someone to listen to her - Brooke is a walking stream of self-obsessed consciousness, providing perfect material for Tracy, who tries her best to jot down everything Brooke says. Brooke talks a big game, but she's all fur coat and no drawers; she boasts of living in the improbable address of Times Square, but her home is actually a squat that requires her to access a fire escape through a downstairs neighbour's apartment. She has huge plans to open a restaurant in the hipster ground zero of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but none of her 'backers' are as convinced by her pitch as she is.
We're never quite sure what to make of Brooke. She's certainly self-obsessed, but if we're honest, aren't we all to some degree? Brooke just likes to verbalise her solipsism. The make or break moment comes when a past victim of Brooke's high school bullying confronts her in a bar. "I apologise to your teenage self," Brooke retorts, "but not to your current self." Is Brooke a cold-hearted bitch for reacting in this manner, or is her classmate more of a narcissist for carrying a grudge this long?
The movie is structured in an unconventional way, and at one point it morphs into an almost self-contained one-act play when, inspired by a none too convincing 'psychic', Brooke, accompanied by Tracy and a pair of her young college buddies, heads to the upstate home of a rich couple she previously burned her bridges with in an attempt to convince them to back her restaurant plans. It's in this sequence that Gerwig takes over the movie, and it's all the better for it. Recently, we saw Peter Bogdanovich fail to evoke the spirit of the classic screwball comedy with She's Funny That Way, but here Gerwig and Baumbach pull it off successfully with an every-room-but-the-bedroom farce that sees Gerwig prowl around like the love-child of Carole Lombard and Katherine Hepburn. The pace of the dialogue is dizzying, and you're half expecting Cary Grant to emerge from a room in his boxers.
A filmmaker co-writing with his actress girlfriend may set alarm bells ringing. Accusations of self-indulgence from the couple are difficult to argue against, with Gerwig writing herself the movie's best and meatiest role, sidelining the protagonist in a way a less subjective screenwriter might not have. Baumbach has undoubtedly given her free reign, but if your other half were as talented as Gerwig, wouldn't you?



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