Noah Baumbach may have directed and co-written "Mistress America," but it's a Greta Gerwig film. Here, Gerwig is playing another variation on the familiar Millennial free-spirit we met in Baumbach's "Frances Ha," Daryl Wein's "Lola Versus," and Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress." And she does it so well that I can't say I really mind that we've seen this all before. We have plenty of bigger stars making movies with the same plots over and over, with only a fraction of the charm. At the same time, I can't help noticing that the formula is really starting to show.
The main character in "Mistress America" is actually Tracy (Lola Kirke), an incoming freshman at Barnard College who is having a difficult adjustment. She isn't accepted to the school's prestigious student publication, stymieing her plans to become a writer . Her fellow reject, Dylan (Michael Chernus), is the first person at college she really connects with, but then he quickly becomes attached to Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who proves to be a hostile and jealous girlfriend. Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe), who will soon be getting remarried, suggests that Tracy get to know her soon-to-be sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who lives nearby in Manhattan. Brooke turns out to be a young woman of big ideas, lively creativity, slight means, and endless, verbose discourse. Tracy becomes fascinated with her and is swept up in Brooke's dreams of opening a local restaurant, while surreptitiously chronicling Brooke's life for her next story.
The high point of the film is an extended sequence in the second half where Tracy, Dylan, and Nicolette accompany Brooke out to the suburbs to try and persuade Brooke's ex-boyfriend Tony (Matthew Shear) and ex-friend turned mortal nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), to loan her money. It's a fabulous piece of farce and more than justifies the rest of the movie existing, but it also highlighted for me how cobbled together "Mistress America" feels from previous films. Tracy's woes at Barnard are well-observed and fairly well-grounded, but never examined in much depth and feel a bit tacked on. Brooke operates on such a different wavelength, when she appears the whole film becomes more absurdist and freewheeling. Then, when Mamie-Claire and Tony enter the picture, suddenly the film shifts gears again and becomes a more formally structured kind of comedy. The humor and tone aren't always consistent from one scene to the next, and there are all sorts of loose ends and under-developed characters - Nicolette seems to have been borrowed wholesale from "Damsels in Distress." Then there's Tracy's narration, via her short story, which is awfully self-aware and leaned on very heavily.
The performances won me over, though. Lola Kirke is excellent as Tracy. The actress seemed familiar, but this is the first substantial thing I've seen her in, and I hope she goes on to bigger and better things. I also liked Michael Chernus, who got enough time to make scruffy Dylan more memorable than similar characters I've encountered in other Baumbach and Stillman films. Heather Lind and Matthew Shear play the most out and out comedic parts, and leave a big impression despite limited screen time. As for Brooke, she's definitely not Frances or Lola or Violet, but comes off as almost a parody of those past roles, slightly too over-the-top to be real. Gerwig's performance is very entertaining, but I have to conclude that just didn't find Brooke as convincing as she probably should have been. Her repartee is just a little too glib, and she repeats signature phrases a few times too many.
I expect that Baumbach and Gerwig will collaborate again in the future, but I'm a little worried how many of these films about being shallow, immature and self-aggrandizing in New York they're going to keep making, especially as Gerwig's hit her thirties and "Girls" is wearing out its welcome on HBO. "Mistress America" was a fun watch, but I suspect it's more fun if you haven't seen the other recent Greta Gerwig films, and that's not a good sign. Now, Gerwig is terribly talented, and Baumbach just hit a career best with "While We're Young." These two are very good at singing the same old song, but I think it's high time that they got a new one.