When a director releases two films in the same calendar year, there can’t help but be a little spillover in subject matter. (Unless you’re Steven Spielberg in 1993, and can compartmentalize well enough to make movies about both dinosaurs and the Holocaust.) For Noah Baumbach, there’s definite thematic spillover between his newest film, Mistress America, and his last film, While We’re Young, which was in cinemas just seven months ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s also spillover with 2013’s Frances Ha, his most recent collaboration with girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig, who is the star and co-writer of Mistress.
Where Mistress America is concerned, though, the word “spillover” also conjures ideas of making a big mess. It’s like someone was carrying an armload of wobbly file folders and took a massive header, leaving a dog’s breakfast of scattered papers and concepts, each meaningful in its own right, but utterly chaotic when intermingled so haphazardly.
The plot should sound familiar enough for fans of Baumbach’s work. Gerwig plays a flighty Manhattan 30-year-old who’s got a swooning admirer in Tracy (Lola Kirke), a poorly transitioning college freshman whose mother is going to marry her father. Tracy feels like the person at the party who doesn’t know anybody, so she seeks out her soon-to-be stepsister (Brooke by name) in order to distract herself from rejection by a cute classmate and a stuffy literary club. Tracy gets caught up in Brooke’s tornado of tics, gesticulations and proclamations, and she begins hanging around the young adult who has designs on opening a restaurant. Brooke’s eccentric and erratic joie de vivre inspires the younger wallflower to come out of her shell a bit, as well as to write a story that might actually be good enough to gain her entrance into that elite literary society at her university. However, her inability to separate inspiration from actual theft, and possible defamation of character, means rough times may be ahead for this twosome.
So Brooke is obviously an amped up variation on the title character of Frances Ha, and the two together make a distaff version of Ben Stiller and Adam Driver’s characters from While We’re Young, with even approximately the same age difference and sense of artistic usury that defines the relationship. In itself that would be okay, as many great directors have gotten away with making essentially the same film over and over again. What drags this one down is that it feels like such an exhausting effort to get through. While it’s difficult to perfectly mete out responsibility for a thing like this, Gerwig seems to be the culprit – both as a writer and a performer. She’s gone pretty big before, but never has she played a Character with a capital C like Brooke. Brooke speaks in a string of grandstanding non sequitors that all sound like thesis statements for essays on modern personhood, and she engages in the Baumbach trademark of talking over the other person without any regard for his or her response. “Output only” is another way of putting it. That too would be fine – self-involvement is often quite interesting – but the whole thing just feels so self-conscious. Brooke does not feel like a real character, but rather, an idea for an outrageous one. And Gerwig plays her as such.
The dialogue in this film is relentless. Lines pile upon one another in an unwieldy thicket of language, the actors delivering them almost like primary school students just waiting for their cue in the school play, rather than actually reacting to what’s been said. The effect only intensifies the more people Baumbach brings into the room, and by the time he’s gotten to the climax, he’s jammed no fewer than eight of them together – the more absurd their connection to one another, the funnier, or so the hope is. This finale is downright madcap, with Baumbach and Gerwig clearly aiming for a screwball comedy vibe. They miss, in part because the humor is uninspired, but mostly because not enough thought has been put into why these eight characters have collided with one another and what’s supposed to be funny about that. David O. Russell has established himself as the modern master of the kind of thing Baumbach is going for here, with characters talking noisily over each other at cross purposes – for shining examples, see Silver Linings Playbook and, longer ago, Flirting With Disaster. Baumbach hasn’t figured out how to direct scenes like this, which is why he comes across more like a conductor pointing at each actor with his baton and saying “You! Now you! Now you!”
Two things save Mistress America from being a total misfire. One is that some affecting moments do creep in to the proceedings. Every so often, Baumbach touches the core of these people’s humanity, and an honest character moment shines through. The other is actress Lola Kirke, who brings a real soul and vulnerability to Tracy. Kirke looks enough like Gerwig that you might almost confuse her for a younger version of Gerwig’s character during the opening credits, when the film is still laying its groundwork. One almost wonders if that’s why she caught Baumbach’s eye in the first place. Let’s hope Kirke doesn’t start to emulate Gerwig’s bad habits, and that in Gerwig’s next film, she can shed them as well.