Lawrence Toppman

‘Mistress America’: Self-indulgent beyond endurance

Greta Gerwig as Brooke and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as Nicolette in “Mistress America.”
Greta Gerwig as Brooke and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as Nicolette in “Mistress America.” Fox Searchlight Pictures

For the truest proof that love is blind, see “Mistress America.” There’s no other reason to do so.

Director Noah Baumbach wrote the script with muse/paramour Greta Gerwig, who stars as 30-ish New Yorker Brooke Cardinas. Brooke strikes up a patronizing friendship with Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), an 18-year-old Barnard College freshman who’s about to become her stepsister. (Tracy’s mom is engaged to Brooke’s dad.)

I think Baumbach and Gerwig mean Brooke to be a life-affirming free spirit who can’t find a place in our mercenary world. Instead, she comes off as selfish, rude, deluded, irresponsible and mean-spirited. Unless the film’s a satire of the Brookes of the world – though the evidence runs the other way – the filmmakers have spectacularly misjudged her appeal. (If it is a satire, it attacks a target not worth skewering.)

On the other hand, every other character but Tracy becomes so repugnant that Brooke shines dimly by comparison. They are, in ascending order of repellent qualities: two rich ex-friends who snubbed Brooke long ago and stole her creative ideas (Michael Chernus and Heather Lind), a smug fellow student who dumps Tracy but inexplicably remains a friend and adviser (Matthew Shear), and that student’s potty-mouthed, insanely jealous new girlfriend, who accompanies him everywhere (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

All the adults speak at top speed, like characters in one of Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies, and frequently say things that are disconnected from what has just happened (or disconnected from reality, period).

Perhaps Baumbach and Gerwig want us to believe Tracy represents a lone hope that common sense will prevail – though she doesn’t show much – and she’ll grow up healthier and happier than the lost souls in their 30s and beyond. If so, that’s a sentiment too sappy and clichéd to think about.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Mistress America


Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke.

Writers: Noah Baumbach, Gerwig.

Director: Baumbach.

Length: 84 minutes.

Rating: R (language, including some sexual references).