A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mistress America” 9.1.15

I admit I’ve always liked Noah Baumbach and his films and have been following him since his start. Like the Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas, he started his career as a writer director at a very early young age. He made his feature film debut at 26 with 1996’s “Kicking and Screaming”, an indie comedy about a bunch of upper middle class college post-grads, trying to decide what it is that they wanted to do with their lives. Then came the most passable work in his filmography, 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy”, a film that showcased the young filmmaker’s talent, but felt somewhat trite and slightly off-kilter in relation to his debut. Then at 36, came what I still consider his masterpiece, “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), that introduced the film world to Jesse Eisenberg, and was anchored by a career best performance by the seemingly odd yet perfectly cast Jeff Daniels. But let me backtrack a year in what I think was a pivotal and extremely important year in context for the writer/director, a year that brought both him, and one his other young contemporaries; Wes Anderson, together to co-write the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004). What’s so notable about this collaboration, is it’s become to me; only by mere reflection, how much of an influence Wes seemed to have had on his sensibilities as a writer. “The Squid and the Whale” which, as previously mentioned, came out the year prior to “The Squid and the Whale”. And while I consider it to be a masterpiece, it’s mainly more for its performances than for its technical or writing achievements. The reason being is that it felt very much “like” a Wes Anderson film, including Wes’ trademark style and Anderson”isms”. Fair enough given that he had just worked with him on a film the year prior. Reflecting back, 10 years ago, I saw its influence but was able to separate it as a film among itself. Baumbach then shifted gears a couple of years later in 2009 with “Margot At The Wedding”, a dark dramedy which like its predecessor, explored the dysfunctional side of family inter-dynamics. “Greenberg” followed in 2009 – which I thought was an admirable film but certainly not a great film. What it did do was introduce both him and the film-going audience to its star Greta Gerwig and now frequent music collaborator James Murphy from the electronic funk outfit LCD Soundsystem. His next film, 2012’s “Frances Ha”, was probably his most successful from both box office numbers and critical praise (including myself) and wound up on many best of end of the year lists. It reunited him once again with new muse Greta Gerwig, sharing both a writing credit and cast as the film’s main lead. Then, come 2015, I heard Baumbach was releasing not one, but two films. “While We’re Young”, featuring his most recognized cast yet with both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, but the film I was most critical of his. So I was very hopeful for his next.

In his latest film takes place in his usual setting of New York City. It opens with a young, privileged freshman in college named Tracy (Lola Kirke – if you don’t recognize her name don’t worry neither did I – she’s new to the film industry). Tracy’s mom, who we meet early on, a divorcee who is soon to be wed to her boyfriend. Through marriage, Tracy learns that she will now have a stepsister, Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, in her second writing and starring in collaboration with Baumbach after “Frances Ha”. Tracy is reluctant to get in touch with Brooke at first, as Brooke is almost 12 years older having just turned 30, and she seems to want to experience New York City and the college lifestyle on her own. But after that proves to be less than stimulating, she picks up the phone one night and calls Brooke, only to be quickly invited over to her house. From there the story line feels strikingly similar to “While We’re Young” except reversed as the younger Tracy being enamored by her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke. Everything about Brooke’s lifestyle, to her many creative interests, hobbies, pursuits, and knowledge of New York City, washes over Brooke and the two form a quick bond that reveals both sides of their characters over the course of the short, 80-something minute film.

This film was pretty disappointing as I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it just reaffirmed my belief that Baumbach is become a one-trick pony, much like his other contemporary, Wes Anderson. It’s essentially a mix between themes that were already explored in both “Frances Ha” (2012) and the film he made earlier this year – “While We’re Young”. Gerwig’s character lacks a certain depth and all of her substance lays on the outside (much like Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in “While We’re Young”). The story between soon-to-be stepsisters feels rehashed from out of “Frances Ha”. With newcomer Lola Kirke (the best thing about the picture) filling in for the best friend in that film. As the two mill about New York and try to fill their lives with everything it has to offer, only to expose how shallow that lifestyle really is. From a writing standpoint it feels more like any other Wes Anderson film (including “The Squid and the Whale”) in that it’s essentially filled with ruminations and quick punned one-liners, with every character introduced trying to be ironically witty and funny but all of whom contain a certain sadness underneath. The story arch itself never really does much of anything other than follow the two New Yorkers from setting to setting, and feels meandering throughout much if not all of its running time. To me, this seemed like a major step backwards for Baumbach, an indie writer/director who seems to be running out of ideas. I’ve always though his films were unique enough but now they seem like mere regurgitations. Sorry Baumbach, but this will probably be my last film I seek out of yours, unless your next film contains something that we haven’t already seen done over and over again.

[C]

Noah Baumbach’s – Mistress America – Starring Greta Gerwig

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM

Living Room Theaters
341 SW Tenth Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The newest from one of my favorite comedic directors – Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale”, “Frances Ha”) opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters. Tuesdays are $5 days at the Living Room!Synopsis: In this millennial comedy, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a mousy college freshman living on her own in New York City meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsist…

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Review: ‘Obvious Child’ 10.11.14

It’s interesting that I should come off a new Woody Allen film with this one up next in the cannon. The reason why I say this is because Allen is considered the first writer/director in American cinema who really started writing strong female characters in film with Diane Keaton acting as his muse. Which is one of the many things I admire about him. If you think about the entertainment industry its always been a predominately male driven one. If you want proof of this look no further than even to this day where there are just a handful of well known women directors. That and when most people talk about or list off who their favorite “actor” is (yes people women are considered actors too) they usually list off a group of men. That’s why I always become interested when I see a movie come along that boasts a mostly female cast (1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” being one of the all time greats). Or in the case of this film, focuses primarily on the trials and tribulations of one woman. Being in that I am a member of the opposite sex, I find it’s important to seek out films that identify with the experience of being a woman. So often in film women are put on screen only to be objectified (see Megan Fox) and reduced to mere eye candy. Which I think is really rather unfortunate. When I first heard about this film, like with most films, it was by seeing a trailer for it before another. I didn’t really recognize anyone in it other than Gaby Hoffman, who I had recently seen and absolutely loved in last year’s “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus”. That and it looked like it had the potential to be really funny. What sealed the deal for me was the fact that it not only looked like a lighthearted comedy, but one with true spirit; and most importantly, one that focused on a strong central female character. Having not gotten the chance to see it in theaters I put a high priority on seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

The film first introduces us to Donna (played by Jenny Slate), a young woman in her late twenties who moonlights as a comic in Brooklyn while she works at her day job at a local bookstore. After a performance one night she is approached by her boyfriend who explains that he’s been cheating on her which completely overwhelms and devastates her. To top if off the following morning at her day job her boss tells her that he’s closing shop. So in a span of 24 hours she gets dumped and her only steady source of income is gone. Donna seeks solace in her best friend (played by Hoffman), her supportive and understanding father, as well as her not so supportive, higher standard, but equally as loving mother. She appears to be going through some mid quarter life crisis and falls into self deprecation. Then on one drunken and off performance night out she meets Max, a guy who while although isn’t really her type, conveniently shows up at a time when she’s most vulnerable. She winds up going home with him (in a dance party sequence that’s pure gold) and has a one night stand, which at that point the central plot of the story begins as she becomes faced with one of life’s most difficult decisions.

This is a wonderful film that I had really good time with. It left me feeling similarly to how I felt after 2012’s brilliant film by Noah Baumbach – “Frances Ha” which also focused on another strong female central character played by the superb Greta Gerwig. Like Gerwig, Jenny Slate is mesmerizing in her role here, and also like Gerwig in that film, plays the character with an authenticity that really comes through in her performance. I also thought it was raw, heartfelt, and tenderly funny, without feeling melodramatic or too full of sentiment. Donna is equally as funny in both her on and off stage personas. The conversations she has with her friends and family as well as her audience produces some genuine laughs about her ruminations on life. Also, the relationship that unfolds with the unassuming Max feels real in a way that is often times hard to capture in similar type relationships I’ve seen depicted in other movies of its kind. There’s also a great bit part featuring David Cross which I was surprised by but I thought fit perfectly in the context of the film. My only couple of minor criticisms is that there’s a coincidence that turns up involving Max that to me seemed a bit far fetched. Very similar to how I felt about the coincidence involving both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in last year’s “Enough Said”. Also, I felt like the story could have been expanded on a little, which felt a bit short and breezy as it zipped by at a brisk 80 minutes. But despite those two pretty minor critiques, this is a film bursting with energy and real true human feeling and emotion. That and as mentioned above, and what I think deserves to be noted twice, it features a bravura performance by the little known Slate who I can potentially see gaining some awards attention at the year’s end by some of the smaller indie-friendly critic’s circles. This is a smart, honest, feel good film which is one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen all year. I’ve already added it on my list of Honorable Mentions that should survive and wind up on my end of the year list. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out. I can assure you that it won’t disappoint.

Grade: B+