You know the type: the initially entertaining but ultimately exhausting, self-appointed life of the party who won’t leave, even after the life has been drained of the party.
This is how I came to feel about Greta Gerwig’s Brooke in Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America,” and though that might well have been a reaction the director and the actress were striving for, I ultimately felt the same way about the film itself.
It just wore out its welcome. Even with a short running time of 86 minutes, by the 70-minute mark I was ready to say goodbye to everyone.
As always, the prolific and gifted Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young”), who wrote the film with Gerwig, has a keen ear for smart dialogue and some genuine insights into articulate, educated characters who pride themselves on self-awareness but are often comically clueless about how others perceive them. At times “Mistress America” plays like a 1930s screwball comedy merged with the likes of “After Hours” and “Something Wild” (two films Baumbach and Gerwig have cited as influences on “Mistress America”). There’s even a bit of Holly Golightly in Gerwig’s portrayal of Brooke.
And then it all falls apart with a road trip that takes us to Connecticut — and to the land of stilted, forced farce.
Talented relative newcomer Lola Kirke (memorable as the trailer park thief in “Gone Girl”) gives a natural and winning performance as Tracy, who arrives as a freshman at Barnard in New York City and is quickly overwhelmed by every facet of the college experience, from dealing with a petulant roommate to figuring out what to eat to worrying herself to death over whether she’ll be accepted by the campus literary magazine. Small moments, e.g., when Tracy drops off a short story at the offices of the zine, makes brief eye contact with the hipster staffers and then scoots away like a kid caught hanging on the staircase during an adult party, are pitch-perfect. We want to give Tracy a hug and tell her it’ll get easier.
Eating by herself one night, scrolling through her phone in search of someone to call (like many young women her age, Tracy has a phone with a cracked screen), Tracy dials up Brooke (Gerwig), who is about to become her stepsister because Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s dad are getting married.
Brooke is a force of nature: a beautiful, stylish, non-stop whirling dervish and talking machine who has an opinion about everything, is in the middle of a half-dozen AMAZING projects and seems to know all the coolest people and all the best places in New York. She’s the kind of woman who not only knows the band and can get you backstage — before the night is over, she’ll be onstage with the band, the muse personified.
The problem with Brooke is she’s a human mirage, and that’s apparent to us a lot quicker than it is to Tracy, who at 18 is understandably wowed by this thirtyish woman, who for all her talk about opening a restaurant and feeling sorry for her friend-turned-nemesis and being in love with her rich Greek boyfriend, seems manic-depressive and narcissistic to the point of literally not hearing what Tracy has to say. (“Can I work here as a waitress?” Tracy asks Brooke twice while Brooke is showing off the space where Brooke plans to open a restaurant. Brooke never answers. She’s too busy listening to her own B.S.)
Gerwig is a magnetic actress, but it feels as if she’s overplaying it here. Even in Brooke’s best moments, she’s not all that charming or interesting.
A road trip to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Brooke intends to confront her former best friend (Heather Lind) who is now married to Brooke’s former boyfriend (Michael Chernus), to basically guilt them into giving Brooke some much-needed funding for the restaurant, turns into an extended sequence in which the dialogue becomes increasingly stagey as more than a half-dozen characters flounce from room to room and confrontation to confrontation.
Reality has left the premises, and the characters might as well be holding the script in their hands as they deliver their lines. Turn out the lights; the party’s over.