Screened Out – Mistress America

By : Stephen Miller
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Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke

The small-scale, metropolitan comedy Mistress America is a great idea done better in other films. Stilted execution and juvenile characters hinder it here. I quit caring for these people; I even started disliking them.

“Do you know what an autodidact is?” one character asks another.

“Yes.”

“Autodidact is one of the words I self-taught myself,” the first replies – the line is funny, but it sounds like it’s coming from a precocious eighth grader, not a 30-year-old. Actually, and eighth grader is more intelligent and aware than this lady.

Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach wrote the stilted script together.

Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach wrote the stilted script together.

Mistress America feels like a badly written stage farce instead of a film. Moviemaking is a literal medium that’s moved away from the stiff presentational style of old-school theater. Someone forgot to tell writer/actor Greta Gerwig and her co-writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg).

Tracy (Kirk), a young NYC writing student finds inspiration in her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig). Older Brooke manically tries to be glamorous and score investors for heir harebrained ideas. Brooke is energetic, creative, and funny; she’s also selfish, scattered, and often mean. Tracy finds hanging around Brooke a great for fighting loneliness…and maybe Brooke can be a source for one of Tracy’s stories.

Do you notice this plot sounds a bit like Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Like Holly Golightly, Brooke is a flighty person living off of others’ finances, pretending it’s chic; she is self-centered, and carefree. Like Tiffany’s Paul, Tracy is a writer who finds she is kind of falling in love with her subject.

Unfortunately, Tiffany’s is a way better film than Mistress America, because it’s smarter, and its main characters are original creations not caricatures. (We won’t mention Andy Rooney.) Tiffany’s understood the time it was created in; Mistress America looks unnatural, labored, and dated. It doesn’t help that the score sounds like cheap ‘80s synthesizers.

Many still shots from the film show how stagey and fake the setups are.

Many still shots from the film show how stagey and fake the setups are.

At a point in the film, we’ve got the two main characters, young lovers, a pregnant lady, a rich man still besotted with his ex, and the man’s bitchy wife all tossing in cutesy bon mots. It’s awkward theatrics. They all deliver their lines like Vaudevillians trying to reach the audience in the cheap seats.

Everyone in this comedy is hidden behind some level of immature artifice – the kind that made us as kids feel we could be cool in junior high if only we had the right haircut and a new pair of brand-named sneakers. These characters all want to be someone else so badly that they act it, talking in arch, simple sentences, making stupid decisions, and letting their egocentrism overrule human kindness.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

The sad thing is there are good ideas here – the loneliness of writing, the inspiration of those crazed ADD artists who flit from one shiny object to another. Lonely and creative people often borrow from and use each other, like in the much better Lost in Translation.

In fact, Brooke has people steal her crazed ideas and life stories all the time. Mistress steals too, mostly from Tiffany’s. Gerwig is at one point described as a cowboy without a frontier (an idea stolen from Kerouac’s On the Road). Actually, really, she’s a rip-off not brought to realistic, unique, flesh-and-blood fruition.

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