Culture

How Not to Do Self-Isolation – via Greta Gerwig in ‘Mistress America’

We review the Noah Baumbach-directed comedy for the third instalment of our Corona Film Club.
02 April 2020, 10:49am
Greta Gerwig 'Mistress America' Film Netflix Review
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A VICE UK column that fills the isolation for those self-isolating due to the coronavirus pandemic​. We’re watching and discussing a film with readers every week.

For the first instalment of the VICE UK Corona FIlm Club, we selected A24’s apocalyptic drama First Reformed. For the second, we went with the lesser known Studio Ghibli cut Porco Rosso. As we enter week three – doesn’t time fly when you’re quarantined? – we opted for change of course (i.e. we wanted to Have a Laugh) and chose Noah Baumbach’s 2015 comedy Mistress America.

The film stars and was co-written by the now-twice Oscar nominated director Greta Gerwig, and Lola Kirke, and features a long scene in which most of the characters are trapped inside a house. This is to say: it felt apt.

On Wednesday night at 8PM, we hosted a viewing party via the Netflix Party extension for Google Chrome, where we were joined by VICE readers. The following discussion of Mistress America is made up of VICE staffers Ryan Bassil, Hannah Ewens, Emma Garland, and Lauren O’Neill’s thoughts on the movie, alongside comments from our Netflix Party live chat.

1) IS THIS FILM ANY GOOD?

Ryan Bassil: I absolutely adore Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig’s film about a young woman navigating her final year of high school. The writing was rich, and honed in on every character’s quiet yet telling moments – it was easy to imagine each of them (her gay boyfriend, her heartbroken teacher, her crush, etc) having their own companion film. Same goes for Little Women. Gerwig still fleshed out each character in her own unique way – it felt more like a high school coming-of-age film than a period piece. It was mad joyful too – genuinely can’t remember the last time I left the cinema feeling that full. But did I enjoy Mistress America? Nah, bro.

Hannah Ewens: The first half hour is near unbearable due to the cringe-worthy tone of having to "set-up" these characters and their situation (a new dorky character arrives as a student at her New York college to make it as a writer) which in retrospect, having watched the whole film, makes perfect sense. The film is successful at what it attempts: it’s a zany, fast-paced Manhattan comedy about middle class privilege and artistic success.

It covers similar territory to Girls – and if I were explaining why this film is "cringe, Chaotic Neutral, but worth watching" to a friend, I'd say it's essentially an extended expression of that scene in the show's pilot where Hannah Horvath declares that, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.”

Emma Garland: I’m a nervous, 30-year-old white woman who writes for a living, so it will come as a surprise to no one that I love Greta Gerwig and everything she’s involved with. I also love fast-paced films driven by neurotic characters playing tennis with unrealistic dialogue, so that’s another box checked for Mistress America.

2) WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Lauren O’Neill: The plot follows Tracy Fishko (played by Lola Kirke, sister of Jemima Kirke who played Jessa in Girls), who is a first year at Barnard College in New York City. She’s feeling pretty lonely which is #relatable #vibes for anyone who has moved away for university, and her mum tells her to give her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who completely glitters in this movie) a call, seeing as how she lives in Manhattan. Tracy does just that and is soon swept up into what turns out to be a bit of a ridiculous scheme by the sheer force of Brooke’s personality, but also writes kind of a mean story about her because she’s desperate to be published by her college’s literary society.

Esme (via Netflix Party): I want to believe this film was written as an alt universe Gilmore Girls fan fic.

RB: As far as I understood it, this film slots into the pantheon of Films About American College Gals Who Are Having Feelings In New York. The main character Tracy is part of her university’s literary society, and her crush isn’t into her. Somehow, she ends up hanging with her soon-to-be step-sister, who is having trouble with her apartment. It’s standard Netflix fodder really. That said there are some flashes of brilliance – Greta Gerwig’s character Brooke, for example, has an air about her and several lines that pre-echo some of what we hear and see in Lady Bird. It just doesn’t fully land here.

3) OK, BUT WHAT'S IT *REALLY* ABOUT?

Jon (via Netflix Party): This film is about having a Mommy complex.

HE: It’s about writing more than anything – the parasitic nature of writers-slash-artists and how they’re always lifting from life. How "fair" is that, really, to steal from other people and their personalities and problems and strengths? The film seems to come down on the side of: don’t be a wanker about it if you’re going to do it.

What would be good is if – plot twist – Baumbach and Gerwig had stolen all of this from their own lives, or if this was one extended "fuck you" to one of their annoying, elite Manhattan writer friends.

EG: Age-related anxieties, resentments and delusions. Lonely and shunned by the Lit Society at the start of the film, Tracy latches onto Brooke because her endearing personality seems to be a skeleton key to life. Meanwhile, Brooke is struggling – a life relying on her wiles and the generosity of those on the receiving end of them has left her, to paraphrase a bit of the character’s dialogue, with less and less options and less and less time to choose. For the heads, there’s also a meta-narrative about the morality of storytelling: whose stories are free to be told, who gets to tell them and how.

Bee (via Netflix Party): How many first world problems can you fit into a movie?

LO: I think that this film is about ambition. Tracy and Brooke are at super different stages – Tracy is 18 and Brooke is 30 or thereabouts, but they both learn something about their expectations of life throughout the movie. Tracy learns that being in the literary society won’t bring her the confirmation of superiority she thought it would; Brooke learns that hopping from project to project ultimately doesn’t make her happy. She feels like sort of a "victim" of the American obsession with prosperity and productivity. When Brooke tells Tracy about an idea for a TV show she has, Tracy says that the name of the show, Mistress America, sounds like “America’s girlfriend.” I think that’s a pretty good summation of how you can think of Brooke too.

The movie is also about a certain type of NYC silliness that Brooke embodies and that the movie really plays up. Brooke’s personality is very social butterfly-esque, her modes of employment are very "of the moment" – SoulCycle instructing, extra-curricular middle school tutoring – and she regularly tweets inspirational quotes. Also, her would-be business ventures, a t-shirt business and a restaurant/general store/barbers/community space called “Mom’s,” kind of remind me of that woman who made loads of money from sweaters with slogans like “Give a damn” embroidered on them.

Gigi (via Netflix Party): Is Brooke Cardinas like Caroline Calloway? Brooke invented Caroline Calloway I'm p sure.

4) WHAT ABOUT THE ACTING?

EG: Everyone is very much on a level. Despite the fact that almost none of these characters should get on – and they often don’t – they all operate on the same quick-witted chaotic wavelength that makes their co-habitation in this universe make sense. The dynamic is very much like a play, in that these are completely different kinds of people thrown together to serve a function, when realistically their clashing personalities, world views and moral frameworks wouldn’t lead to a story panning out like this at all. For a prime example of this in action see: the scene where Dylan (played by Easy actor Michael Chernus) comes home, and the pace of the film literally changes to have the artificial feel of a broadway musical.

Jerome (via Insta DM): The acting matches the screwball comedic tone of the film, though it felt like Greta Gerwig's character was basically a grown-up version of Frances Halladay (from Frances Ha) who somehow found money.

LO: Brooke is in many ways a selfish asshole (see: the scene in the bar when an old schoolmate approaches her) and still, Gerwig made me cry with her face two separate times. Every performer in Mistress America is overacting on purpose – the vibe is sort of like Wes Anderson but funnier and a touch less irritatingly stylised – but there is something about the openness of Gerwig’s expressions, and the way she portrays her character’s need for something of her own to hold on to that really stirred something up in me! What can I say? I’m scarred by my experiences of the London rental economy!

HE: Judging by how irritated I was by both the main character and Gerwig’s character I would say the acting was good.

Bella (via Netflix Party): Oh, to be called "baby" by Greta.

Gigi: I would die to be called "baby" by Greta.

RB: Like I said, Gerwig has some moments here. They feel melodramatic, and very much like she’s “acting” – but that’s why I love her. She nails the enthusiastic, dream-haver image of someone prone to saying ridiculous things. Everyone else… yeah, they’re serviceable. Nothing really to shout about.

5) WHO'S THE DIRECTOR? WHAT DID THEY DO HERE?

LO: Noah Baumbach, who is best known at the minute as the guy who made Marriage Story, always seems to encourage his actors to give these quite exaggerated performances, which is what we see here. I find his style to be defined by honest and real emotions communicated much more expressively than ordinary people ever would. The gap between feeling and communication in his films is interesting because on one hand you do sort of hate the characters for feeling self-indulgent, but on the other hand there are occasions when you can’t deny the emotional potency of what they’re saying.

matt’n’eri (via Netflix Party): This dialogue is exhausting. Imagine self-isolation in a house like that.

RB: Baumbach had already worked with Greta Gerwig in a writing capacity at this point, on 2012’s Frances Ha. I’ve gotta say: didn’t like that one either. In fact I’m not sure I can remember a Bumbach film I’ve enjoyed. Marriage Story was alright, I guess – I mean, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both turned in great performances – but narrative-wise, they all kind of plod along? That’s how I felt about Mistress America. Like I was plodding along with the main characters, as they moved through their life. Yet I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there with them. It wasn’t a terrible watch but it was a drag, to be honest. I’ve seen better.

Bee (via Netflix Party): I can't tell if the writing was a parody of shitty modern writing or just shitty modern writing.

6) BEST SCENE?

EG: All the ones with Dylan.

HE: For me, it was easily when a houseful of people turn on the protagonist. The existence of the short story is revealed and everyone is in uproar about what a cow she is for writing it. When one character says: “I don’t even like the writing. Like your whole generation, it’s all pastiche,” I was really howling. Everyone could finally come together to understand that this girl had pushed the bounds of decency. It was the pay off the audience had been waiting for with all this insufferable college awkwardness and lofty writer-y aspirations.

RB: There’s a bit where they go see a psychic which is kind of sick. Don’t get many psychics in films, so I rate that. Big up the psychics.

7) WHAT'S COOL ABOUT IT?

HE: The dialogue is an incredible centrepiece for the whole film. Almost every line from Greta Gerwig’s character is quotable, from “You are much more of an asshole than you initially appear” to “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” I've watched almost all of Gerwig and Baumbach’s films and would go so far as to say it’s the best dialogue of their writing careers. At the very least, it’s the most fun.

EG: While the main story revolves around Tracy and Brooke, I really like that we’re given enough detail about every single character to have a full idea of who they are. Nicolette’s early experience of infidelity, Mamie-Claire marrying for money but not wanting to be defined by it – everyone has a very clear psychological hang-up, which I appreciate.

8) DOES IT ILLUMINATE ANYTHING ABOUT OUR CURRENT PANDEMIC PREDICAMENT?

EG: Not particularly, but it does hammer home once again that wealthy people can buy themselves out of any situation – including the unlikely event of your ex-girlfriend turning up to your house in the middle of your wife’s book club for pregnant women with three teenagers in a love triangle.

Jerome: The scene where Tracy is confronted by everyone dramatically is a great reverse-metaphor (is that a thing?) for social distancing.

LO: Most of the second half of the film has a very funny but very stressful and claustrophobic ~vibe because it’s set in one house, so what I have learned from this movie is that you shouldn’t isolate with your stepsister-to-be, her friend, her friend’s girlfriend, your ex-best friend Mamie-Claire, her husband, and a pregnant lady.

RB: I guess in as much as people are going to keep rolling through their life and having problems – sure. But nah, not really. This film should have had more pandemic. Bring me the Gerwig pandemic film.

@hiyalauren / @ryanbassil / @emmaggarland / @hannahrosewens

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