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Movie Review: 'Mistress America'

The the well-intentioned Mistress America is true independent comedy, and that's not a good thing.

Review by Matt Cummings

Actress Greta Gerwig and Director Noah Baumbach hit paydirt with 2012's Frances Ha, showing that that Sacramento-born actress and Brooklyn helmer could craft a funny, poignant comedy about struggling to identify your place in the world. But 2015 already producing a strand of very good independent comedies - Dope, While We're Young, and The DUFF among them - Mistress America arrives feeling a bit rushed, stumbling often, but ultimately delivering a decent quirky time.

The 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) is facing more than the challenges of her first semester in college would suggest: her mother is getting married to a conservative Catholic, she struggles to maintain a social life, and an effort to join the campus' Morbus Literary Society has utterly failed. Desperate for friends, she contacts her soon-to-be sister Brooke (Gerwig), who invites her to party in Manhattan. Thus begins a transformative experience for the demure Tracy, who realizes that Brooke seems to know everyone and has an opinion on everything. At the top of her list: Brooke is hoping to open a scatter-brained-themed restaurant with her boyfriend Stavros. But when he backs out and disappears from her life, Brooke must travel to her sworn enemy Mimi Claire (Heather Ludd), who stole her boyfriend (Michael Chernus), her t-shirt business idea, and even her two cats. As Brooke's life begins to falter, Tracy decides to write it down, hoping the Society will take her in, but not realizing the damage its release will have on her new-found friendship.

It doesn't take long before one will start to compare America to a stage play, its carefully-rehearsed comedic beats working against its terrific script. America is about generally unlikable people doing unlikable things, nothing illegal mind you, dolling out character assassinations and stating its superiority to everyone else. Even the shy Tracy gets infected with it, tossing off her friend Tony (Matthew Shear) for being superficial like a piece of cordwood. After awhile, this New York comedy starts to weigh too much, as I began to hope that the jerkiness of these people would be exposed. Luckily that happens to a certain degree, but it's not a nice feeling to have in the first place.

Co-Writer/Director Baumbach scored with another comedy this year in While We're Young, painting his many characters as similarly superficial. He's got a great comedic talent, and sometimes his directorial genius comes out in understated ways. Performances are solid, with Gerwig getting the better end of it than the lispy Kirke; Gerwig is a breath of intelligent comedic air, not confined to the physical comedy of Melissa McCarthy to sell a laugh. Brooke is about to get in over her head, and Gerwig also shows the growing wear of losing everything quite well. By the time the lights come up, she's a ragged and defeated mess, perhaps the saving grace behind America. And yet I couldn't stop feeling that she deserved everything that was happening, with Tracy trying to emulate what becomes a losing formula. Kirke is decent but doesn't jump off the screen, nor does much of the cast. Perhaps that's what Baumbach intended, but it's to the film's detriment that no one steps up to challenge Brooke.

And that's where America goes south. The comedic panic becomes very practiced, especially when all the players meet at Mimi Claire's house, each one needing to be at the right place and time for the exchanges to work. Even when Brooke loses, it feels like she's won the scene. That sort of bombasity overwhelms too many scenes, as if Brooke's larger-than-life personality and endless supply of friends is somehow better than anyone else's. But credit the ideas instilled by Writers Gerwig and Baumbach, their intelligent comedic bend coming off much better than many low-brow affairs. A film like this would have been better served with a strong A-list cast, which might have defeated the whole point of the independent comedy; but something needed to be done, as the script feels more worthy than its performances.

I give credit to Mistress America for its spirit, not to mention Gerwig's axle-to-the-wheel stage presence. However, this will have a hard time playing in smaller cities, where New York comedies feel as foreign as a place 12,000 miles away.

Mistress America is rated a surprising R for language including some sexual situations and has a runtime of 84 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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