Greta Gerwig’s Influence Is Evident in Mistress America

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America.

The latest collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig is Mistress America, in which Gerwig plays Brooke, a manic-depressive pixie — a combination of optimist and injustice collector, like Auntie Mame if she’d suddenly decided her party guests were out to screw her over. She’s viewed through the eyes of her soon-to-be stepsister, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who sees her as material for a short story that will get her into the school’s prestigious literary society. Tracy isn’t just an artist-vampire — she’s kind of smitten with Brooke. But she knows that, as a writer, she can’t let such an interesting specimen go by. (I wonder if Diablo Cody — whose real first name is Brook — was an inspiration.)

Mistress America is hit-and-miss. It’s not as burdened by blame as other Baumbach films — Gerwig leavens him. But it’s labored. The chattery characters talk past one another the way they do in stage comedies, and the editor jumps from close-up to close-up to underscore the loopy non sequiturs. The overlong last act feels especially stagebound. It takes place at Brooke’s rich ex-fiancé’s fancy Connecticut house, where she has gone — dragging Tracy, Tracy’s almost-boyfriend (Matthew Shear), and Tracy’s almost-boyfriend’s ultraclingy girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) — to plead for money to help her open a combination coffeehouse, salon, and hipster community center. That’s a big step, since her ex-fiancé is married to her ex–best friend (Heather Lind), who stole Brooke’s idea for a T-shirt design. (A couple of miscellaneous bystanders pipe up, too.) Farce with a vein of pathos sounds good in theory, but it’s middling funny at best, and you can see the harsh climax limping toward you for about an hour.

A few scenes are the right blend of funny and squirmy. In one, an old high-school classmate accosts Brooke and Tracy in a bar and rails at Brooke for having been a hurtful bully. She’s a nut, but she’s right that Brooke is missing something in the empathy department. The movie’s tangle of sympathies suggests the influence of Gerwig, an actress who wants to give every character a moment to shine.

*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.