I tend to blow hot and cold on the films of Noah Baumbach though, truthfully, more hot than cold.
I like his spikiest, least-audience-friendly films (“Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg”), as well as more mainstream offerings like his breakthrough “The Squid and the Whale” or this year’s “While We’re Young.”
But I draw the line at his collaborations with Greta Gerwig, who may be the most overrated (or at least most overemployed) actor of her generation. First in the interminably unfocused “Frances Ha,” and now in “Mistress America,” Baumbach indulges Gerwig’s painfully amateurish performances, as though she were actually an actress, instead of someone whose success either exemplifies the Peter Principle or male willingness to accommodate minimally talented blondes.
(Yes, I know — Gerwig wasn’t awful in “Greenberg.” But the film wasn’t about her character and her screen time was limited.)
In fact, Gerwig cowrote the script for “Mistress America” with Baumbach, but that doesn’t help. Because, ultimately, someone has to read those lines — and, unfortunately, that someone is Gerwig.
Indeed, the script has a steady stream of clever, offbeat exchanges that would work if uttered by someone with more talent. It is easy to imagine an actress like a young Parker Posey or perhaps Elizabeth Banks giving this dialogue the kind of odd-tempo readings that would make it snap. Gerwig, however, is overmatched.
The film centers on Tracy (Lola Kirke), a lonely college freshman in New York for her first semester. She’s unhappy at being unable to generate a social life (while trying to win a spot on the snooty college literary mag).
Her divorced mother, who is about to remarry, suggests that she call her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig), who is older and more connected. Brooke turns out to be a whirlwind of activity, sweeping Tracy into her funnel-cloud of a life, providing her not only with a social life but fodder for her literary endeavors.
Brooke plans to open a restaurant, which leads to the adventure that comprises the film’s second half. They go in search of Brooke’s nemesis, a college friend who stole her then-boyfriend, as well as a million-dollar idea the ex-friend successfully exploited.
It’s Tracy’s journey but Brooke’s film. Which would have been fine with a more competent actress in the role. Gerwig, however, plays the same character over and over: There’s little difference between this mannered, rote performance and the ones she gave in “Frances Ha,” Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” or even that dreadful remake of “Arthur.”
As a result, “Mistress America” plays like a smart script acted by an actress who seems clueless about the tone of the material (despite having written it) — or else is incapable of interpreting it properly.
In either case, the film is stillborn. But Greta Gerwig’s career somehow goes on.