Mistress America


Just two broke girls talkin'.

Just two broke girls talkin’.

(2015) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Shelby Rebecca Wong, Joel Marsh Garland, Andrea Chen, Seth Barrish, Shana Dowdeswell, Dean Wareham, Amy Warren, Shoba Narayanan, Morgan Lynch, Adrea Teasdale. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There is New York, and then there is everywhere else. I suppose that those who live there have every right to feel a kind of smug superiority about where they live; after all, they have world class museums, world class concert halls, world class nightclubs, world class restaurants…hell, anyone who is bored in New York isn’t trying very hard.

Tracy (Kirke) is becoming a New Yorker. Well, she’s becoming a college student at Barnard. Keen to be a writer, she’s not the sort that fits in easily. That’s especially true lately, as her mom (Henderson) is getting ready to re-marry. Tracy yearns to become a member of the literary society at Barnard, who celebrate publication of a new author by sneaking into their room at night and throwing a pie in their face while they sleep. Rad, eh? However, she meets rejection even here. Tracy realizes to get in with the literary crowd she’s going to need something special to write about.

As part of her mom’s new marriage, she is going to have a new stepsister, so upon her mom’s insistence she arranges to meet her soon-to-be-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy takes an immediate liking to Brooke. She’s almost ten years older and established in the city; she’s getting ready to open a fabulous new restaurant and has some really cool ideas. She hangs out with cool people and lives in a loft that’s zoned for commercial use. She’s full of energy and life and talks a mile a minute, sometimes about deep things but sometimes just idle chatter.

When one of the investors in her restaurant – the one who happens to be her boyfriend – pulls out, Brooke is left dangling in the wind. She has no choice but to go to the home of her arch-nemesis Mamie-Claire (Lind) in the Godforsaken wilderness of Greenwich, Connecticut and demand her due. You see, years ago, Mamie-Claire stole an idea of Brooke’s and made a fortune out of it. That wasn’t the only thing she stole though – she took two of Brooke’s cats and her boyfriend at the time Dylan (Chernus) who was himself independently wealthy but is now Mamie-Claire’s somewhat henpecked husband. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But things go from bad to worse as the discovery is made that Tracy has been writing a story with Brooke as the lead character – and not everything is complimentary. Brooke is feeling betrayed and everybody around her – even Mamie-Claire – think that was a dick move. But was it?

I do think Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote this thing, were out to make a modern screwball comedy. The rhythms of the dialogue are very similar and the patter is snappy, although not in a retro way. I’m thinking that this is a brilliant move on their part because in many ways Gerwig is a modern Carole Lombard.

But as smart an idea it is, the ambitions here are a bit more than the pair can chew. The trouble with screwball comedies is that they are a bitch to pull off right, and there are so many examples of great films in that genre out there that unless you’re damn near perfect from screenplay to final film, your movie is just going to suffer by comparison.

The movie here isn’t perfect. It starts out with a couple of very annoying characters whose dialogue is so unrealistic, whose attitudes are just so smug and self-important that it’s incredibly hard to do anything but despise them. If I ran into Brooke and Tracy at a cocktail party, I’d quickly find other people to chat with – they’re way too pretentious for my taste. When I think of indie films that Baumbach and Gerwig have collaborated on previously, the first half of the movie has the worst characteristics of their worst efforts. I really was ready to write this one off before I was halfway through the movie.

Fortunately it gets better. In fact, it improves a hell of a lot and the scenes set in Greenwich are inspired. Gerwig always seems to do better in large ensembles than in smaller groups; when it’s essentially just her and Tracy with Tracy being a shadowy image of Brooke, the movie is just annoying. When Brooke has a lot of people to bounce off of, the movie is enjoyable. I think that Gerwig is one of those actresses who needs to be diluted a little bit and the more people she has to interact with, the better she is. Da Queen has said that she can only take Gerwig in small doses and I can see why she has that effect on her; there is a bit of a narcissistic quality to the characters Gerwig plays in Baumbach films and those types of characters tend to rub Da Queen the wrong way.

I was very torn with this movie. The first part is excruciating but the second part I really liked. So how does one rate a movie like this? Straight down the middle; a zero for the first half of the film, a ten for the second for a cumulative score of five. Be warned that the first part of the movie is hard to sit through but the second half makes the first half almost worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Gets better as it goes along. Gerwig is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: Horrible first half. Characters act and speak like they’re in a 21st century screwball comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Lola Versus Gerwig played a character named Lola. In Gone Girl Kirke played a character named Greta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Digging for Fire

Frances Ha


Pretentions, anyone?

Pretentions, anyone?

(2013) Comedy (IFC) Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d’Amboise, Grace Gummer, Daiva Deupree, Justine Lupe, Lindsay Burdge, Patrick Heusinger, Marina Squerciati, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Josh Hamilton, Dean Wareham, Maya Kazan, Ryann Shane. Directed by Noah Baumbach¬†¬†

Since the advent of motion pictures, there has been a hidden conspiracy that is rarely spoken of out loud but exists nonetheless – the attempt to portray being in your mid-to-late twenties in New York as the best existence possible. Of late, that has been a banner eagerly taken up by indie filmmakers.

Frances (Gerwig) is an understudy for a modern dance troupe. She has vague ambitions for something more – mainly to make it on to the touring company, despite being much less talented than other dancers in the fold. The company’s director (d’Amboise) tries to break it to her gently that while she likes Frances personally that she simply doesn’t have a prayer of being anything but an understudy for the company, offering her an office job while she looks for options but that really doesn’t fit into Frances’ plans, what there are of them.

Frances’ roommate is her bestie Sophie (Sumner). The two went to college together, hang out together, play fight in the park, hang out and bitch about boys and boyfriends and smoke on their balcony. Sophie works for Random House and appears to be the breadwinner of the family. Her boyfriend Patch (Heusinger) works in the financial industry, is hopelessly preppie and converses with a kind of fake “Yo, bro!” bonhomie that is at once jarring and irritating to hipster sorts which Frances clearly is. Sophie alternates being smitten with Patch who can provide a stable future and abhorring the compromise in her soul that she has to make to keep him happy. Eventually stability wins and Sophie moves out to Manhattan, leaving Sophie in Brooklyn with no income and no apartment.

She finds a couple of rich hipsters, Lev (Driver) who is kind of magic as she puts it, and Benji (Zegen) who fits her personality like a glove, teasing her as “undateable” and leaping on her bed without warning like a five year old on a Sunday morning. After a trip home to Sacramento for the holidays, she returns having left Lev and Benji and staying temporarily with another friend, only to discover that Sophie and Patch are moving to Japan after Patch is transferred there. Frances is desperately lonely and floundering, caught in the rapids of life and not really knowing where they will deposit her. Even an impulsive trip to Paris (paid for with a new credit card, although she can only afford a weekend there and only the because some friends of the friends she’s staying with offer her the use of their apartment there) turns disastrous and fails to cheer her up. She is forced to find work as a summer Resident Advisor at the college she went to only a few years ago. How humiliating is that?

The admirable thing about Frances is that she doesn’t let life keep her down. She can be flaky sure, and her maturity level is roughly the same as an 8th grader in many way but there is a kind of innate optimism in the woman that is endearing. Frances and her friends are pretentious with the sort of pretention that is native to a twenty-something who has left the cocoon of college and has discovered that the reality of life isn’t what it was living with their parents. Like most of that age group, they discover that the dreams of childhood and high school are not handed over on a plate and aren’t received in a matter of months. There’s that suspicious knot in their bellies that their dreams may not be attainable at all and that the only thing that makes it bearable is liberal use of alcohol, intellectual discussions about authors and books that have the proper amount of obscurity to them and indie music as a kind of soundtrack.

Gerwig is an appealing actress who has become something of the 21st century incarnation of Goldie Hawn – she can play flighty but there is some grey matter there even if the character she’s playing has none. Gerwig co-wrote the movie and one suspects that there is more than a little bit of Greta Gerwig in Frances. While the movie is solidly written, like many indie movies over the last 15 years it sadly mistakes quirkiness for personality.

Baumbach (who in real life is involved with Gerwig as of this writer) is a director with amazing potential; movies like The Squid and the Whale as well as Greenberg show how able he is behind the camera. He chose to film this in black and white, leading to obvious comparisons with Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan (as well as a few with Annie Hall in tone if not in palate) and I’ll admit that the Big Apple has always had a particular appeal in the softness of black and white photography, although there is a curious darkness and harshness to the shades of grey here.

The appeal here is going to be to those in that 20-something age group, particularly those in urban areas who hang out in bars and coffee houses, clubs and cafes, art houses and bistros. There is a certain magic that age engenders and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. If older audiences such as myself are put off by it, there is partially a wistful jealousy behind it – my 20-somethings are well in my rear view and that decade is never coming back. The wisdom of my age group (that generally eludes those who are younger) is that every decade of life has something sweet to offer and that each can be as rewarding as any other – the 20s don’t have to be the beginning and ending of life. However when we are in the throes of the passions that 20-something creates, it’s hard to see what lies beyond the intersection.

If hipsters were vampires, they’d never be able to book this as a matinee. That is really who the target audience is here. I’ll admit there has been a hipster backlash of late, largely due to movies like this which can be infuriating (Da Queen, frustrated by flighty Frances, often glared at me throughout the movie and mouthed the words “I’ll kill you” for taking her to see this, a movie she knew from the trailer wasn’t going to appeal to her). However, those who are in that target audience are going to fall in love with Frances and her lifestyle. For the rest of us however, there’s a maddening condescending tone that prevents full acceptance and for that the rating is much lower than it needed to be, plus Frances is a bit too neurotic for my taste. That said, if you can overlook the film’s pretentions and faults, you might just find this to be worth seeking out.

REASONS TO GO: Captures 20-something angst nicely. Gerwig is sweetly effervescent.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too hip for its own good. Largely limits its own appeal to the age group that inhabits its frames.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some drug usage and a good deal of frank sexual conversation as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; critics love this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannah Takes the Stairs

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Malice in Wonderland