My 99c movie the other day was Mistress America, directed by Noah Baumbach. I had heard a review of this ages ago and the verdict had been more or less that it was not quite up to the standard of his previous film, Francis Ha. The problem was that although I have not seen it, I remembered vaguely that Francis Ha had not exactly been reviewed in glowing terms. Certainly not a crowd pleaser but definitely OK if you like spoilt self-obsessed young Americans talking endlessly about themselves instead of going out and getting a job.
So I set my expectations to below zero, which is probably why I ended up enjoying at least two thirds of the film before the whole thing became so arched and pleased with its stagey self that it did grate a tad.
The story is about a young girl who is studying and trying to fit in with the ‘writer types’ in New York. She is encouraged by her mum to contact a girl who is going to be her new step sister, who also lives in NY. They meet in Times Square and she spends a dazzling night with this girl, older than her, who at first sight appears to be an ubermensch. She has a boyfriend, she is starting a restaurant with him, she knows how funky places to eat and dance – and she knows the band and gets up to sing with them on stage. In this one night, staged as a crazy whirlwind of montage, it appears that she has the world at her feet, as a sophisticated, popular and successful young woman.
Of course it does not take long before the cracks start to appear and the dazzle begins to chip off, resulting in a road trip (what else can you do after a montage after all?) and a visit to her ex-best friend to trace back to where she believes her problems started.
They lost me at the road trip. I liked the idea that the younger girl is overwhelmed by the older one’s poise, because I thought that was an interesting dynamic to explore -the way someone you think is untouchable and supreme, bit by bit, chip by chip becomes more human and ordinary and hung up as you get to know them. I loved the way Mistress America (as the title of the film refers to her) made her entrance down a flight of steps in Times Square, chatting all the while as she approached with apparently not a care in the world that it was taking forever for her to get to the bottom. Then it all just got a bit too clever for its own good and they ended up at a house party full of pregnant women in a reading group, a very jealous girlfriend and a hostile neighbour and it all just got a bit… I don’t know, like a load of cheap copies of ideas I have seen in other films but can’t for the life of me remember. It lost its heart. It sold out on its core for a bucket of style – except it was not style, it was stylisation. Its intention was to be funny, and it was not as funny as it thought it was.
Maybe I am too old for this stuff. Maybe younger people that me will think the film witty and brilliant and quotable. I liked it better when it wrapped around and the story came back to where it began, even if the ending (because remember the younger girl is a writer) ends up in the cliched happy ending of finding her voice and starting to trust it.