Mistress America is indie director Noah Baumbach’s (Frances Ha) latest cinematic hookup with his off screen inamorata Greta Gerwig. Much like its polarizing (or is it bipolar?) heroine, the movie has its peaks and valleys. Gerwig plays Brooke, an utterly self-centered whirligig who always seems to know the cool places to go, things to wear, people to hustle. Hyper-manic and exhausting, she’s wired up to think she has a right to be rich, stylish, and famous — after all, even her closest friends have been scamming her self-described brilliant ideas all her life.
As played, and co-scripted by, Gerwig, Brooke is one of those vivid, all-over-the-place types certain people find attractive until they wake up one morning left bloodless with puncture marks and lipstick traces on their necks — in the most fashion-forward shade, of course. Brooke finds her latest acolyte in beautiful college freshman and worshipful sister-in-law-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke of Mozart in the Jungle), an aspiring writer who sees in her raw material for a short story that could earn her way into her school’s exclusive literary group. Off they go with Tracy’s offbeat, kinda-sorta boyfriend (Matthew Shear) and his crazily jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) to the leafy Connecticut manse of Brooke’s rich ex-fiance (Michael Chernus), who married her best friend (Heather Lind) to whom she now barely speaks. Brooke is desperate to scrounge up the cash for her latest passion project, her very own literary salon/café/community hangout. During this section, the movie finally upshifts into the screwball comedy territory its been promising, with lots of crosstalk, manic running around, and juicy dialogue. It feels like a play, though.
The movie is much more entertaining — let alone more uncomfortably funny — when characters are wising up to the Brooke and letting her know the damage she’s done to their lives. As if she cares. Gerwig is never going to be everyone’s cup of terrific. She has a tendency to sound like she’s reciting but at least this movie is more than a showcase for her. She and Baumbach give every character a chance to shine, say funny things, and be ridiculous and touching, with Kirke, Shear, and Chernus coming off as especially sharp and endearing. That generosity of spirit lightens and elevates Mistress America and accents the movie’s nice sour-ball tang.