“Mistress America” (2015) is too zany for its own good

by Andrew Kingsley | 9/15/15 6:01pm

Director Noah Baumbach’s latest feature “Mistress America” (2015) is a screwball comedy about the humor and perils of saying “yes.” Without a voice of reason and the sense that everyone should go with the flow, the viewer gets terrific farce, at the cost of vulnerability and pain. Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s muse and the film’s co-writer and star, has mastered the effortlessly mercurial stream of consciousness style of Jean-Luc Godard’s muse Anna Karina — she’s even got the same dance moves — with the quirky modern sensibility of Zooey Deschanel.

Gerwig’s character, the 30-something Brooke Cardinas, is a yes-woman, with so many lightbulbs of creativity that she blinds herself from action. She works as a freelance interior decorator and cycling instructor, while mulling over ideas like fusion pierogies, a cabaret show, a retro-chic country restaurant and gritty floral T-shirt designs. To no surprise, her inchoate thoughts pinball into near incoherence, turning those around her into mere sounding boards that cannot keep up with her. If she were the main character of “Inside Out” (2015), her brain would be utter chaos. While amusing, her style becomes grating, overindulgent and borders on caricature. It is like she has become an action-figure for quirkiness, and Baumbach keeps pulling on her catchphrase string like a giggling, insatiable child.

In the style of Maude from the film “Harold and Maude” (1971), Brooke’s joie de vivre and fearlessness inspire her impressionable new stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) to blossom and abandon her college freshman insecurities. As a nascent New Yorker, Tracy seeks refuge from her first-year loneliness and feelings of rejection through Brooke’s invigorating lifestyle. It is like Brooke has opened the door to Oz for Tracy, and that colorful new world is bathed in whimsy and hope.

Soon the two are going to bars and having sleepovers as Brooke casts her spell over Tracy, who has found a role model that most malleable freshmen would seek to emulate. Her teenage cynicism succumbs to Brooke’s optimism, and Tracy soon becomes Mistress America’s sidekick in the battle against the status quo and conformity. It is as Brooke says: “I’m the same me I’ve been, just in another direction.” Like Baumbach himself, Tracy is inspired to write about Brooke, and translates her stepsister’s oddity and pith into an eponymous, and strangely slanderous, short story.

But we catch glimpses behind Brooke’s curtain, and we see that she is not as magical and invincible as Tracy’s projection. When her boyfriend/investor for her restaurant — who may or may not exist — falls through, she travels to the Greenwich, Connecticut, home of her wealthy former beau, Dylan (Michael Chernus) for funding. There, she and Tracy find Dylan’s wife and Brooke’s nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who is exactly the boutique-y, posh housewife you’d expect Brooke to hate. She has made a career on stealing Brooke’s ideas — as well as her husband and cats. Indeed, she is the King Claudius to Brooke’s Hamlet.

What follows is a non-stop fireworks display of dialogue between Brooke, Dylan, Tracy, two of Tracy’s college friends, Mamie-Claire, a pregnant housewife named Karen and an irascible neighbor, Harold. Like choreographed skaters, the cast weaves, ducks and leaps their way through cramped rooms in an impressive homage to the Stateroom scene from the Marx’s Brothers film “Night at the Opera” (1935). It is quite a mad tea party — there is chess, a book club for pregnant mothers whose reading list includes Faulkner and Derrida, chipwiches, an apple bong and Tracy’s short story, which threatens to topple this whole house of cards. Ultimately, of course it does, but their indefatigable jolliness precludes any melodramatics.

In the end, the characters all feel like Baumbach playing with his toy figurines, as they all speak the same voice of artificial zaniness. Even the crotchety neighbor becomes infected with this artificial tenor. When Brooke says she has fat arms, of course Dylan promises, “I like fat arms.” When there’s no straight guy to ground the insanity and just say “no” to it all, the film runs away with its own style, and becomes like Brooke herself — narcissistic, and deaf to the audience saying “enough!”

Rating: 6.5/10

“Mistress America” will be playing at The Nugget Theatre at 4:40 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays, with additional 1:50 and 9:15 showings on weekends.