‘Mistress America’ An Onerous Experience

After 86 minutes, I was leaving the theater drained. Something didn’t sit right with me. It was as if I had been trapped at party and stuck talking to that one person who just wouldn’t shut up. We all know those types at a party and that’s why we avoid being cornered by them. This may have been what director Noah Baumbach and Gerwig were striving for; I ultimately felt the same about the film. About an hour into the film I was ready to leave the theater.

As always, the gifted Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha), who wrote the film with Gerwig, creates a script rich in wit and some genuine insights into well-rounded characters. It seems at times Mistress America plays like a 1930’s screwball comedy combined with the likes of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) gives a wonderful performance as Tracy, who arrives as a freshman at Barnard in New York City, and is overwhelmed with everything. Tracy dials up Brooke (Gerwig), who is about to become her stepsister because Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad are getting married. The problem with Brooke is she’s not who she appears to be. For all the big plans that centered around a restaurant opening, in reality she’s manic-depressive and narcissistic to the point where she doesn’t listen to anyone. Gerwig is a fantastic actress, but it feels as if she’s overacting here.

At one point, the shots and the production design begin to distract from the overall enjoyment of the film. At times this movie was very stagey, as the characters move from room to room as we go from confrontation to confrontation. This movie seemed about as natural as a kindergarten production of Death of a Salesman. I understand that Baumbach was shooting for a stylized sense of staging in the film, but there comes a point where it’s overcooked. When it goes over the line the movie becomes far from appealing and, quite frankly, avoidable.

The cinematography was mediocre at best, failing to capitalize on the beauty of New York City. Some of the shots were so amateurish that I was pondering whether or not the cinematographer was a prepubescent 12-year old. I do think that pacing of the film contributed to this problem, but that was the director’s decision and thus we know who’s at fault there.

As for the music, it didn’t take away or add anything. I would have liked to see them have some more upbeat energy in the tunes, but what we got was more middle of the road. It was as if with every decision that was made in the movie was done with the idea of being “safe”. Safe works but safe doesn’t equate to quality films.

If anything, Mistress America teaches us that just because something sounds good doesn’t mean you are going to have a fantastic time at the movies.

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Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.