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Here, She Comes

Fox Searchlight Pictures
 84 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Noah Baumbach 
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
Mistress America

Greta Gerwig’s latest film Mistress America is unlike recent previous Greta Gerwig films, especially those made by director (and Gerwig’s current boyfriend) Noah Baumbach. Although Gerwig gets top billing and plays pretty much the same self-assured blowhard in Mistress America that she plays in all her movies, this time, at least, Baumbach puts her in the middle of a talented ensemble cast and wisely makes someone else the main character. And that’s a good thing.


I freely confess that I am among those who find Gerwig’s presence in movies to be the cinematic equivalent of a particularly bad toothache. It’s not so much that she plays characters I can’t stand or even the fact that she’s simply not all that funny in supposedly comic roles. No, it’s the idea that critics rave about what a wonderful new comic talent she is, even though I rarely see her do anything funny, and her attempts at humor are often painfully unfunny.


So, I was surprised by Mistress America, beginning with the fact that Gerwig is M.I.A. when the movie begins. Instead, the first fifteen minutes of the film depicts the opening semester in college of extremely maladjusted and withdrawn freshman Tracy Shipko (Lola Kirke). Unlike most freshmen who love partying and the social aspects of college life, Tracy wants to be taken seriously as a writer and is extremely upset when the school’s ultra-snobby literary society rejects her story. Then, when she commiserates with Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow reject, she becomes even more upset to learn he’s got a girlfriend.


Fortunately for Tracy, her mother (Kathryn Erbe) suggests that Tracy get in contact with Brooke (Gerwig), the daughter of Mom’s fiancé, who can show Tracy the ropes in New York City. And that Brooke does, in spades, as Tracy winds up on a whirlwind tour of all of New York City’s trendy locations where Brooke just happens to know people. But while Tracy’s voiceover adoration of Brooke resembles those Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” commercials, what we come to see, quite quickly, is that Brooke is a nincompoop, who comes up with grandiose schemes off the top of her head but hasn’t the knowhow or gumption to follow any of them through.


Brooke’s latest scheme is a new restaurant to be financed by her never seen boyfriend, and it’s clear from one trip to the location that the venture is doomed to be an expensive failure if Brooke has anything to do with it. Of course, Tracy doesn’t see that, and when Brooke’s boyfriend predictably bails out on her, she hatches another scheme, this one to go to Greenwich where her former roommate Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) supposedly stole Brooke’s boyfriend, money-making tee shirt business idea, and cats. And, since neither Brooke nor Tracy drive, they enlist the aid of Tony to take them.


The first half of Mistress America resembles most of Gerwig’s recent films, with one major exception. Once she shows up in the movie, Brooke becomes its driving force, with the camera focusing on the various pearls of wisdom she is dispensing. The difference, of course, is that everything is now filtered through Tracy’s eyes and ears, and the result is not unlike Auntie Mame, in which everything is seen through the eyes of Mame’s highly impressionable nephew. Gerwig and Baumbach have structured the screenplay so that viewers can see, as Tracy clearly does not, just why Brooke is still in the same mess she’s always faced.


Naturally, the trip to Greenwich doesn’t go as Brooke envisioned, but it also doesn’t go as this critic had envisioned. Baumbach transforms this encounter into a freewheeling, often farcical set piece that takes up most of the last half of the movie. Baumbach keeps the pace and the rapidfire dialogue going, as the various characters (there are eight main characters in this sequences) pair off with the action spiraling out of control. I’ve seen funnier short scenes this year, but this is the best lengthy sustained sequence of its kind that I can recall in a long time.


As the sequence progresses, Brooke (and Gerwig) surprisingly blend into the background, with Baumbach giving more time to the other cast members. She still contributes her usual repartee, but the movie gradually makes her appear something Gerwig rarely appears in her films—vulnerable. The truths regarding her past with Mamie-Claire (none of them really shocking) come out, and Baumbach’s usual tendency to put a dark edge on his comedies is apparent here.


But the sequence is not merely about Brooke, and that’s its real strength. Tracy gets her fair share of comeuppance as well, as she has to deal with both Tony and his jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who came along for the ride, primarily to keep an eye on Tony. Of course, the rather snooty Mamie-Claire is an all-too-easy target for some well-deserved putdowns, but the arrival of her husband Dylan (Michael Chernus) puts a different perspective on the romantic triangle with Claire years earlier.


Mistress America still features too much of Claire, especially in the first half, for it to be a great comedy. Gerwig’s attempts to appear comic (especially her lame efforts at physical humor), have never worked for me, and they don’t work now. However, Lola Kirke manages to become a very good Mary Tyler Moore to Brooke and the other zanies that wind up in the Greenwich scene. Baumbach’s dialogue is a sharp and witty as ever, but he manages to spread it more evenly among his ensemble cast, most of whom are quite able to do it justice. The film also is the least gloomy Baumbach movie I can recall, certainly more lighthearted than the recent While We’re Young. I never thought I would say this, but Mistress America is a mistress worth keeping.

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Mistress America (2015) on IMDb