I don’t really get Greta Gerwig. She’s not untalented, but she doesn’t really rock my face off, either. Yet people keep flipping out over her (Lainey: I used to flip over her), and I just want to ask—you’ve seen Chloe Sevigny, right? You do know that Chloe Sevigny exists? Because Greta Gerwig is basically Millennial Chloe Sevigny, which is not a bad thing to be, but let’s not pretend like it’s a whole new thing. Let’s especially not act like it’s a whole new thing when Gerwig keeps making movies with Noah Baumbach in which she plays some variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Their latest collaboration, Mistress America, is also their most frustrating. Gerwig has a knack for comedy and Baumbach is good with dialogue-heavy movies that feature difficult characters, and both get to play to their strengths—makes sense, as they wrote the script together—but somehow the result is more annoying than entertaining.
I’ve heard Mistress America described as a screwball comedy, and those elements are present, but it’s really more a comedy of manners. The second half especially has a 21st century Oscar Wilde vibe, taking place at a Connecticut estate where everyone is despicable and rich and intolerable. The best character in the movie appears in this section: Karen (Cindy Cheung, Obvious Child), a pregnant woman whose husband has forgotten her, forcing her to spend even more time with all these despicable, intolerable rich people. Karen is over it. She’s the perfect audience surrogate for those of us who are completely done with Mistress America by the time she shows up.
Mistress America is about two soon-to-be step-sisters connecting in Manhattan. Tracy (Lola Kirke, Mozart in the Jungle) is a college freshman and aspiring writer, newly arrived in New York and encouraged by her mother to meet Brooke (Gerwig), who will become her step-sister. Brooke is 30 and has a surface sheen of grown-up glamor—she lives in Times Square, has a mysterious/probably shady boyfriend, is planning on opening a restaurant, and seems to know everyone. But it’s quickly apparent that Brooke is totally full of sh*t. She’s proud of the fact that she’s “self-made”, but she’s more “self-created”, or perhaps “self-envisioned”. Brooke hasn’t actually done anything in life, except figure out how to live without really doing anything in life. She’s like a pseudo-intellectual version of Kanye West’s Wife, minus the reality show. She jumps from scheme to scheme and talks a good game, but there’s no there there.
Tracy, on the other hand, feels like a real person. Kirke perhaps projects a little too much poise for an eighteen-year-old (she’s 24 in real life), but she nails Tracy’s “I’ll go along with this, but I think you’re crazy” vibe, which she honed as the straight man to Gael Garcia Bernal’s frenetic Maestro in Mozart. Everyone makes a big deal out of Gerwig, but it’s Kirke who really stands out. She’s grounded and natural while Gerwig works overtime around her, and she gets right the mix of precocious drollness of a truly bright individual, and the lingering naiveté of childhood. We understand the emptiness behind Brooke’s façade long before Tracy does.
When the future step-sisters get together Tracy is promptly whisked away by Brooke into an odyssey that culminates in their trip to Connecticut, where Brooke tries to shake down a frenemy for money earned off an idea of Brooke’s that she stole (among other things). There are genuinely funny bits but with a protagonist as maddeningly hollow as Brooke, it’s difficult to sustain a connection with or interest in the plot. Your ability to enjoy Mistress America depends entirely on your tolerance for mannered films and obnoxious characters. Since I’m not really buying into Gerwig’s whole thing, the movie was kind of a chore. But if you’re into Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Noel Coward, then it’s the film for you.