“Mistress America”: How can a movie that’s only 84 minutes long be so boring?

“Mistress America”: How can a movie that’s only 84 minutes long be so boring?

I keep giving Noah Baumbach chances. He once made movies that engaged me (The Squid and the WhaleMargot at the Wedding), and he continues to attract cult audiences and critical raves. (The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody calls his latest “one of the most exquisite of recent screenplays.”) Yet Baumbach and I seem to have permanently parted ways regarding what, exactly, constitutes a meaningful cinematic experience.

2012 brought Frances Ha; Baumbach’s first Greta Gerwig collaboration, the quickly-made film told the twee tale of a zany, itinerant young woman (Gerwig) who just can’t quite find her place in life. It was unclear which was more unbelievable: the character’s series of skullheaded (but adorable!) decisions, or the abrupt and pat ending.

Then, this spring we got While We’re Young, a more elaborate affair that pitted Gen-Xers Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts against footloose millennials Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. “The movie starts out as a loose collection of gags about the baby-making years versus the baby-raising years,” I wrote at the time, “then ultimately degenerates into a series of tedious epiphanies involving a character we care steadily less about.”

Now, there’s Mistress America, a contrived and cursory flick in which an ostentatiously “fun” Gerwig character once again has to get her shit together in New York City. This time she’s accompanied by her soon-to-be-stepsister Tracy, a college freshman played by a predictably poised 24-year-old Lola Kirke. Gerwig’s 30-ish character Brooke seems to have cruised through life exclusively on the power of her charm, and she’s now trying to leverage that charm into someone’s—anyone’s—six-figure investment in a restaurant called “Mom’s,” with deliberately mismatched plates and a cozy yet culinary vibe.

We also meet Tony (Matthew Shear), a classmate in whom Tracy seems to retain a romantic interest purely to compete with Tony’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones); and Brooke’s ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus), a wealthy investment banker who’s been “stolen” (in Tracy’s view, though she dumped him first) by Tracy’s friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). The (relatively) long central section of Mistress America involves an odyssey to a spacious Connecticut home shared by Mamie-Claire and Dylan, who Tracy hopes to convince to invest numerous “stacks” in her would-be restaurant.

Once again, Baumbach and Gerwig (who co-wrote) indulge their penchant for where-we-are-now dialogue that aims to comment wryly on of-the-moment phenomena like gentrification, every decade of life being the new one-decade-younger, and Twitter (which neither Baumbach nor Gerwig use in real life). The film’s overarching theme involves what it takes to become a creative, fulfilled more-or-less-young adult in 2015.

As with While We’re Young, though, Mistress America is heavy on ideas and light on believable characters. Baumbach zips us through quick-cut scenes of characters having experiences together, and thereafter we’re assumed to have shared those experiences and developed empathy for the characters. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips contribute ’80s-flavored music that’s deployed much like it would be in an actual ’80s movie: to underscore montages of characters hanging out together and to lubricate transitions that didn’t really need to be hurried, given that the movie is only 84 minutes long.

Also, as with Frances HaMistress America ends with a rapid sequence of events that land the characters squarely on their feet, faces turned into the bright prospects of the future. Why has Baumbach become so afraid of unhappy—or even just ambiguous—endings? If he’s going to craft quick little character portraits, he could buy himself a lot more breathing room and believability if he didn’t try to stuff them with conventional plot devices as if he’s hoping the Hallmark Channel will cut a distribution deal at Sundance.

Mistress America—again, like Frances Ha—relies heavily on Gerwig’s tireless charisma. She is indeed appealing, but surface appeal isn’t enough to carry a whole film, especially one that thinks it cares what’s in its characters’ heads.

Eccentric but intelligent romantic comedy characters like Brooke are still in the shadow of Annie Hall, who blossomed into a fully-realized comic creation both because of Diane Keaton’s inspired performance and because of Woody Allen’s ability to show, not tell. Talky as Allen’s movies are, Annie Hall still gave us a series of unforgettable scenes (think of the lobster boil, and the car trip, and the tennis match) that illustrated the chemistry between Annie and Alvy.

Mistress America, by contrast, takes its title from the name of a short story written by Tracy about Brooke, and a voiceover by Kirke reading the story tells us what Baumbach and Gerwig think we need to know about what makes Brooke tick. I’ll take their word for it, I guess, but they’ll have to excuse me for not misting up when the credits roll.

There’s also the increasingly problematic issue of diversity in Baumbach’s cinematic world. The three most prominent actors of color in Mistress America—all in supporting roles—play a nice but near-silent neighbor; a pregnant friend of Mamie-Claire’s who keeps promising that her husband will show up any minute; and Tony’s unsympathetic, justifiably jealous, girlfriend who just can’t seem to achieve the kind of magical moments that Tony shared with Tracy.

This world is run by white people, who get all the screenplay’s sympathy: the bookish, slightly goofy guys and the pretty girls who get stuck on them. All five of the leading characters—even the satirically suburban Mamie-Claire and the conceited Dylan—get scenes that reveal their hopes and dreams, and Gerwig is practically haloed in an aura of the kind of quirkiness that’s a gift to the world. For a filmmaker who’s so concerned with being contemporary, Baumbach seems disturbingly content to contribute to the marginalization of a wide swath of the contemporary American experience.

Mistress America will surely seduce some, but I found it all too easy to resist the film’s lazy temptations.

Jay Gabler