You know how some movies just crawl under your skin and stay there, like a tick? Mistress America is one of them. Here is a movie that’s very sweet and innocent, and by all accounts tells a heart-warming story of friendship, but not for a second did I believe any of it. There is a great sequence in an uptown mansion that works beautifully, but it comes too late. The movie should have started with it; perhaps then I might have been a bit more forgiving.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig like these stories. They recently collaborated on Frances Ha (2012), one of those quiet indie movies that a lot of people liked solely because it was an indie movie. I thought it was a strange one, and Gerwig came across more like a dim-witted social outcast than a quirky icon of do-it-yourself living.
In Mistress America, Gerwig plays Brooke, a high-flying socialite in Manhattan who’s proud of the waiting room of a hair removal parlour she once decorated. Her dad is about to marry Tracy’s mum, so Tracy (Lola Kirke) comes to Manhattan looking for her new big sister. They hit it off. Brooke throws Tracy into a night on the town, and Tracy suddenly has a role model worthy of her affection. They could be sisters, I guess, but the movie has other plans.
For the first forty-five minutes or so, very little happens. Brooke and Tracy mingle, seldom talking about their love-stricken parents. It’s as if they’re both ashamed of new romance – indeed, Tracy fails to win over her dorky classmate Tony (Matthew Shear), who has eyes instead for the psychotic Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).
There are subplots about writing and money, and all of it is handled by Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s screenplay as if all the actors are sitting around a conference table rehearsing jokes and gags. Gerwig, especially, is not as effervescent and charming as her admirers protest. She emphasises the right words at the wrong time, or the wrong words at the wrong time, or something, and pitches her lines at awkward levels, so it seems like she’s unsure of her own material. She doesn’t sell her stuff, and in comedy, selling is the name of the game. People find her quirky. I find her unprofessional.
The mansion sequence arrives, which involves Tony, Nicolette, Tracy, and Brooke harassing Brooke’s old friend (Heather Lind) for money she may or may not want to part with. This is the best part of Mistress America, because it is written with a zany excitement that unfolds with quick-fire dialogue and nigh slapstick amusement, and the characters, for once, actually appear to believe the things they’re saying. It ends with a sad revelation that threatens to destroy the utopia Brooke and Tracy have designed, but even in independent cinema there is room for happy endings.
Look, if you like these kinds of movies, you will enjoy Mistress America. The man beside me in the theatre cackled way more than anyone else. He’s obviously a fan. I remained silent and uncomfortable throughout, because in comedy, I cannot laugh if I don’t buy into the humorous world created by the filmmakers. I cannot laugh if the actors don’t sell me their jokes. I can, however, appreciate a story, and Mistress America, behind all the pretence, has a sweet one.