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A funny and forgettable home movie for Baumbach and Gerwig

Ain’t love grand? Seriously, now. Falling in love – or merely advanced “like” – can’t help but be good for body, mind and soul.

If you’re a filmmaker, though, you’re a near-certainty to be very soon mired in speculation about the influences of a new life partner once that partner shows up in one’s work. (See the transition from Diane Keaton to Mia Farrow as stars in the films of Woody Allen).

Sometime in the transition between Noah Baumbach’s films “Margot at the Wedding” and his new film “Mistress America,” his life partner changed from Jennifer Jason Leigh to former mumblecore movie darling Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig is the star and co-writer, with Baumbach, of “Mistress America,” Baumbach’s latest lightweight new comedy about a young Barnard freshman who falls under the emotional and intellectual sway of a slightly older New York woman who’s about to become her stepsister.

Tracy and Brooke’s parents are about to marry. So we’d almost all agree that the future stepsisters need, at the very least, to hang out a little with each other. Get acquainted, all that.

That’s not the half of what happens though. It’s only a small portion of the interior life changes for freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) when she starts hanging out with dynamic, electric Brooke (Gerwig).

Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in "Mistress America." (David Feeney-Mosier)

Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in "Mistress America." (David Feeney-Mosier)

Tracy, like so many college freshman, is tentative and wary in her first steps toward blooming into independent adulthood. She is, though, naturally shrewd and observant which gives this movie its charm.

Her soon-to-be-sister is a different young woman altogether. She effervesces with ideas, energy, life experience (however limited) and even well-developed personal grievances.

“Mistress America” is a very funny and very shrewd movie, whether it’s telling you facts about college life (it takes a lot of nerve to fall asleep in a class with only 12 people) or about the self-drama of a 30-something woman struggling to overcome the world’s obstacles.

Tracy isn’t close to formed yet, but she’s riveted to the spectacle of Brooke, who’s been there and done that and now knows where to go and who wants these days to “cut all the negative people out of my life.”

Baumbach seems, among other things, unsettled about people looking at the generation immediately younger than they. In his last film, “While We’re Young,” there was an oddly vinegary version of a floundering New York filmmaker and his wife and the ambitious and manipulative younger couple they briefly come to admire and hang out with.

From left to right, Greta Gerwig as "Brooke," Heather Lind as "Mamie-Claire," Cindy Cheung as "Karen," Michael Chernus as "Dylan," Matthew Shear as "Tony" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in "Mistress America." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

From left to right, Greta Gerwig as "Brooke," Heather Lind as "Mamie-Claire," Cindy Cheung as "Karen," Michael Chernus as "Dylan," Matthew Shear as "Tony" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in "Mistress America." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Baumbach’s message these days, somewhat weirdly, seems to be “the kids are not necessarily all right.” In “Mistress America,” for instance, we are introduced to a high school girl whom Brooke finds bad news indeed.

But, as Tracy discovers through a lot of misadventures with Brooke, Brooke is far more lovable in her insistence at rushing at life full speed than she is instructive.

Brooke, it seems, is for befriending, not learning from.

There’s a fair amount of funny stuff including the movie’s set piece as Brooke and her newfound family and friends invade the home of an old friend she thinks betrayed her. Brooke is in search of money to invest in a new project and she figures her old friend owes her.

It’s all smartly done.

The movie is usually funny when it wants to be and, in any case, is never less than pleasant.

The bad news is, 10 days after seeing it I had trouble remembering the title and almost blanked completely on what the film was about. Much study of my notes was necessary – not a good thing, that.

Let’s just say that my suspicion is that this movie is a lot more important to the couple making it than it is ever likely to be for a moderately pleased audience.


"Mistress America"

2.5 stars

Starring: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke

Director: Noah Baumbach

Running time: 84 minutes

Rating: R for language and sexual references.

The Lowdown: College freshman in New York bonds with a dynamic woman who is soon to become her stepsister.


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