The Zany Fractures of Mistress America


By Mikhail Karadimov September 4th, 2015

I want to do this, I want to do that. This and that. That and this. The options bloom within blossoms, a multitude of options, a mountain of decisions, one variant begets another, and my head spins out of control as my body spins in place, spinning, spinning, spinning, a self-perpetuated motion machine that never manages to spin from its pinned location. Worst of all: I want to accomplish all these fleeting goals and illusive dreams—this and that, that and this—on my own, with self-taught knowledge, and—of course (I wouldn’t have it any other way)—I want everyone to know of my accomplishments and I want them to herald them, I want them to shout them from the rooftops, write them up, bounce them off the walls so that the entire city reverberates with my greatness, my transcendence.

But that would mean actually doing something.

So is the story of Mistress America. So is the story of middle-middle class New York—or better yet: middle class hipster New York.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is new to the city. A college freshman. No friends, no aim, no direction. She knows she wants to be a writer, so much that she craves entry into her school’s most prestigious writer’s society, but she’s swiftly rejected and tossed off into the wandering streets of New York. In a moment of idle loneliness, Tracy decides to befriend her stepsister to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). They get along swimmingly, but only because Brooke has finally found a rapt pupil in Tracy, while Tracy’s found a muse in Brooke.

Brooke lives a delusional life. She’s everything and nothing. She claims to be a freelance interior decorator, has a restaurant deal that may or may not go through, and tutors on the side. She has a costume for every profession: a long beautiful coat for her restaurant meetings, glasses and a humble cardigan for tutoring, etc. Her head fractures off into millions of directions, swirling with DIY ideas and inventions that she never follows through on.

And she’s thirty. Which, unfortunately for her (and all women of all stripes and creed—because of patriarchal bullshit), tolls with the heaviness of a Hemingway-esque bell.

For whom?

For her.

This photo provided by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows, Lola Kirke, from left, as Tracy, Cindy Cheung as Karen, Michael Chernus as Dylan, Heather Lind as Mamie-Claire and Matthew Shear as Tony in a scene from "Mistress America." (Fox Searchlight Pictures via AP)

Mistress America zings and ricochets with manic energy that surprised and tickled me. I wasn’t expecting such unbridled vigor from writer-director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Still Young, Frances Ha). Sure, he knows how to bring the funny, how to keep his stories short and to the point without lingering or taking long and meandering detours, but I wouldn’t call him an exuberant director. Mistress America crackles with pure, white hot energy. And it isn’t necessarily due to the camera or the edits. The films zaps your molecules with dialogue, direction, and infectious performances. Gerwig—who co-wrote the script with her boyfriend/director—and Kirke trade one-liners with confidence and pizazz, at a speed that isn’t fully realized until the two of them reach Connecticut to confront Brooke’s ex-fiancée and his wife (Brooke’s former friend) at their super modern, super chic house overlooking some picturesque Connecticut valley. It’s here where the movie finally reveals its odd pacing, its gonzo freneticism, for what it truly is: a screwball comedy—something akin to a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks flick (IE; The Palm Beach Story and/or His Girl Friday, respectively).

It all comes out once all the players have been ushered into the same space. The cast of characters dive in and out of the house, popping up at random moments to add onto a conversation that has nothing to do with them. Lines are delivered one at a time, but with rat-a-tat velocity that doesn’t mind leaving audience members in the dust. If you’re not quick enough, you might miss out on an inspired joke here and there. This portion of the film, which chews up—deliciously so—a third of the film’s total running time exhibits a playfulness so giddy, so effervescent, that I couldn’t help but smile every time someone merely spoke.

Mistress America 1

It’s also the section of the film that helped me piece together my own reading of the film—mind you, a film that, thankfully, has a point, has a thematic end game, something that Baumbach’s other 2015 entry While We’re Young was in desperate need of. The dialogue careens away from their characters’ mouths. No one shares the same thought process, the same conversation. They all simply wait their turn to speak. They wait for their cues so that they may speak and speak and speak about their aggrandized sense of self. It isn’t till the film’s end that Tracy and Brooke exchange a meaningful conversation, one in which both parties’ ears and minds are present and active, attuned to the moment-by-moment beats.

People in New York reluctantly tangle their paths with others, like a cat’s cradle of stubborn and deliberate self-interest. They cross paths begrudgingly, only because they need other people to confirm their greatness. All I want to hear from your mouth is how incredible I am. People don’t listen. They watch. They watch for shutting lips, glazed eyes, that closing intake of breath—all the cues one needs to continue their own thoughts, their own opinions. Everyone’s simply waiting their turn to spout their own bullshit.

It’s a real problem. I believe so. And I’m glad that we have this movie now to document New York’s ever-increasing, ever-endearing brand of narcissism. As well as its colorful and intoxicating hysteria.

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