'Mistress America': The dialogue and the characters should be sharper

Director and co-writer Noah Baumbach has a good eye for middle-class/upper-class pretensions, and the cast is spirited.

Fox Searchlight Pictures/AP
'Mistress America' stars Greta Gerwig (l.) and Lola Kirke (r.).

In “Mistress America,” Greta Gerwig might as well have “Force of Nature” stamped on her forehead. Not that we need the prompting. She plays 30-year-old Brooke, a volatile mix of carefree and careworn. We are introduced to her by the film’s narrator and centerpiece, Tracy (Lola Kirke), the shy 18-year-old Barnard student and would-be fiction writer whose mother is engaged to Brooke’s father.

After they meet up for the first time, in Times Square, Brooke immediately sweeps Tracy up in a swirl of parties and gabfests. Brooke teaches a spinning class in the mornings – which, given her energy, makes sense – and plans to open a homey restaurant in Brooklyn. But her financier, a Greek boyfriend, has backed out. She must raise $75,000 by Monday.

Gerwig co-wrote the movie with director Noah Baumbach – their previous collaboration was “Frances Ha” – and this may explain why Brooke is such an unmodulated chatterbox throughout the film. This becomes exhausting after a while, which might not have been the case if the chatter, or the characters, were sharper. Baumbach is attempting to make a screwball comedy, which is not easy to do. You have to be not only funny, but relentlessly so. Especially in the film’s complication-ensnarled second half, when Brooke descends upon an old flame (Michael Chernus), now wealthy and living in a Connecticut mansion with his wife (Heather Lind), the bon mots often devolve into gabble.

Still, Baumbach has a good eye for middle-class/upper-class pretensions, invaluable when one is making a screwball comedy, and the cast, including Tracy’s college literary cohort Tony (Matthew Shear) and his hyper-possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), are spirited. As the pushback to Gerwig’s force field, Kirke may at times be too mousy for her own (or the film’s) good, but her stillnesses are often a welcome respite in this whirligig. Grade: B- (Rated R for language including some sexual references.)

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