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In Mistress America, the new comedy of manners directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and the actor playing the title role, Greta Gerwig, Tracy, a freshman in college who wants to be a writer, has trouble fitting in. She can’t get invited to a party. The snobbish college lit magazine rejects her story. The only person who has warmed up to her, fellow writer Tony, whom she hopes to date, suddenly shows up with another woman on his arm.
Desperate to find a way out of her slough of despair (to use a literary allusion), she finally does what her mother suggests: contact Brooke, the daughter of her mother’s future husband, who lives in New York. And when she does, Brooke takes Tracy under her wing and expands her horizons.
But Brooke is, well, quite a character, should we say. Which is good since, in many ways, Mistress America is a character study.
It’s also a very studied character study.
Critics have said that Mistress America is very quotable. And in many ways, they are right. Just like a play by Oscar Wilde, I could see almost every line possibly ending up in a Barlett’s.
But everything in the movie feels like it’s in quotation marks. The acting, the characters, the story, the mis en scene. It’s like a Restoration comedy that’s been produced within an inch of its life.
That sounds like I’m saying something negative about the movie. But I’m not really. Yes, everything in Mistress America seems punctuated, but still, it’s a thorough joy to watch. It is a rollicking good time.
It’s full of wit, though I’m not sure how much charm is there. It often feels like a screenplay by Whit Stillman, with the major difference being that the characters in a film like Metropolitan are actually a lot nicer to each other. Here, the dialog is full of sudden caustic attacks and non sequiturs that often are thrown out like darts, sometimes humorous, sometimes funny, sometimes eyebrow raising or eye rolling.
But again, that’s one of the joys here, listening to Brooke babbling on, often with lines delivered in non-sensical order and seeing everyone going along with it as if it all makes perfect sense and is just the normal way people talk everywhere.
And the plot’s not quite what you expect. The way the situation and character is set up, the intimation is that we are going to find out that Brooke is a charade, that she is little but an illusion she has created and that she is nothing of what she maintains. If this wasn’t a comedy, she would easily fit in as a bar patron in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
But in the second half, during a wonderful set piece of a farce where Brooke, Tracy, Tony and Tony’s girlfriend Nicolette look up Brooke’s nemesis, Mamie-Claire (who Brooke claims stole Brooke’s boyfriend, ideas and worst of all, her cats) in order to get money for a restaurant, we find out, quite unexpectedly, that Brooke is actually exactly who she says she is and that all the stories she’s told about herself are true.
What we discover in the end is not that she is full of illusions. Her problem is that she is incapable of following through on anything. She has ideas, goals, dreams, but not the ability to make them real. She’s actually a heroine from an Anton Chekov play.
And I do want to emphasize just what a marvelous set piece this scene at Mamie-Claire’s is. It’s like a rollercoaster ride you didn’t know you were going on.
The whole movie wraps up rather nicely except for one turn that I’m not sure I buy or understand.
In order to try to get into the above mentioned literary magazine, Tracy writes a story based on Brooke (with the title being the title of the movie). It’s accepted and Tracy is in.
But it’s a rather cruel story in many ways and when it comes out at the end, Tracy is made to feel like a traitor. And she is. She pulled a Truman Capote and got what he did.
However, also in the end, she decides to resign from the lit club and form her own with Harold and Nicolette. This feels set up as a life lesson learned, but I’m not quite sure what the lesson is. The lesson should be that if you are going to be a writer, you are going to have to be cruel to people when you exploit them for your art. There’s no real way around this.
Yet here, it seems to suggest that Brooke may be turning her back on that and going in a different direction. But I don’t know what alternative direction she can possibly go in and still be a writer. Life is cruel and art is even crueler.
In the end, I have no idea what the point is in her decision.
Gerwig assails the part of Brooke as if she were having the time of her life. There is an energy and light in her eyes that just pulls you along with her from the moment she walks down a grand staircase in Times Square like Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. You can’t get away from her, nor should you want to.
And she has wonderful chemistry and great coming timing with the Nick Carraway character of Tracy, played solidly by Lola Kirke.
Also on hand is Matthew Shear as Tony; Jasmine Cephas Jones as Nicolette; Heather Lind as Mamie-Claire; and Cindy Cheung, who ends up in the middle of everything at the end when a book club meeting finishes and she has to wait for her husband—she is absolutely hysterical.
Catherine’s father, a great artist, has killed himself and Catherine’s boyfriend James has broken up with her spiraling her into a deep depression. To give her a place to recover, Virginia invites her to her Aunt and Uncle’s place, an incredibly beautiful two story lake house.
But underlying tension between the two and the occasional interruption, which Catherine highly resents since she expected it to be a week of just her and her best friend, of next door neighbor Rich, who Virginia sometimes sleeps with, only drive the two apart and make it more and more difficult for Catherine to recover.
However, in Virginia’s defense, the previous year Virginia had Catherine come up when she was going through a difficult time and Catherine thoughtlessly brought her boyfriend James with her, which Virginia deeply resented.
That’s pretty much what the story is about. Except that by the time it was over, I can’t say I really knew what the story was about. Not really.
How you react to Queen of Earth will probably depend on how you react to the approach Perry took to the material.
In many ways, Queen of Earth has one important similarity to Mistress America; it has been stylized to such a degree that everything again feels punctuated, as if every line said, every bit of acting, every plot turn, every camera placement is in quotation marks.
But while Baumbach and Gerwig use of this style resulted in a movie full of energy and humanity, for me, it feels as if Perry has squeezed every bit of life from the proceedings until there seems to be no energy, no real emotion, nothing to grab onto.
Everybody in the movie does little but treat each other with incredible cruelty and go out of their way to say the vilest things to each other, but say them as if it was the most natural conversation in the world. Their whole goal seems to be little but drive a knife in another’s back and then twist it around a few times.
It’s not that there aren’t some intriguing scenes. There’s one marvelous moment where Virginia realizes what is really happening when Catherine makes a phone call. And Rich has two interesting moments, one where he closes a door on Catherine and another where he tries to give her a cup of coffee. Though the best written scene in the movie has to be the one where Catherine is confronted by a bitter caretaker.
But these scenes, for me, are too few and far between and in the end I found it all a bit nebulous and ambiguous, perhaps a bit too much of both. The whole movie feels as if it’s a matter of style over substance. Yes, it doesn’t really look or feel like any other movie, but at the same time, I’m not sure it feels like anything.
At the same, one must give tribute to Perry for trying to do his own thing and create his own unique vision. There is not enough of this going around in independent film and should be encourage. I’m just not sure that he’s succeeded here.
With Elizabeth Moss as Catherine (she was also in Listen Up Philip); Katherine Waterson as Virginia; Patrick Fugit as Rich. Like the movie as a whole, all of them are so controlled by the director, none seem to ever really come alive as human beings.
Also with Kentucky Adler as James who says his lines in such a low key that one can hardly hear them at times.