Friday, August 21, 2015

Mistress America


This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I fell in love with Greta Gerwig the minute I saw her make a face while eating bad pizza in the horror movie The House of the Devil. Since then, I've seen almost all her movies, and even in the bad ones, she's been enjoyable. She's immensely watchable, and her performances always feel completely authentic. When she teamed up with writer and director Noah Baumbach (they're also romantically involved) for Frances Ha, it felt like a perfect melding; this century's Annie Hall. So I was eager to see their latest team-up, Mistress America.

Unfortunately, it's a misfire, and Gerwig gives her first performance that feels like a performance.

Gerwig plays 30-year-old Brooke, a New Yorker who "does everything and nothing." Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a freshman at Barnard College, and her divorced mom (Kathryn "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" Erbe!) is set to marry Brooke's widower dad. Tracy is reluctant to give her soon-to-be-step-sister a call, but after a few lonely months at school, she does, and very quickly falls under Brooke's manic spell.

Brooke is everything enviable to the naive writing student, and soon she becomes inspiration for Tracy's latest short story. Brooke lives in an apartment that's zoned commercial, is a part time singer, interior decorator, math tutor, and enthusiastic home cook. She has dreams of creating a TV show, writing short stories ("but longer"), and developing an app. But her big dream is to open a restaurant/hair salon/community hangout called Mom's, with help from her boyfriend of whom she says "he's everything I hate except I love him." Problem is, Brooke is 90% dreamer, 10% doer, and her boyfriend is soon out of the picture.

We're supposed to understand why Tracy would be so drawn to Brooke, and this is where the movie — and Gerwig — falters. Brooke is, frankly, annoying as hell, and Gerwig is never able to get her Brooke to rise above that fatal character flaw.

It also doesn't help that much of the dialogue feels stilted and mannered — like it was written to be a stage play. This style dominates the middle portion, an extended sequence with an ever-increasing number of superfluous characters that's supposed to come off as screwball and quirky, but instead grinds the movie to a halt. What had felt slightly like a stage play turns into something that feels like the dress rehearsal for a play desperately in need of a final rewrite.

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