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Greta Gerwig makes a grand, sweeping Times Square entrance in Mistress America.

The press can’t resist a narrative, especially when it resembles a bad romantic comedy. Noah Baumbach spent the late 2000s gaining a small but devoted following by making a trio of finely wrought, keenly insightful, deeply unlikable movies about deeply unlikable people. However, when he cast Greta Gerwig in the last of these, Greenberg, they fell in love, and their next collaboration, Frances Ha, was a wonder of lightness and charm. The generosity of spirit he showed in that movie continued into his comedy from this spring, While We’re Young, and so the narrative jelled into place: Gerwig is the real-life Manic Pixie Dream Girl who saved this middle-aged grump from hitting a misanthropic dead end in his career and showed him how to find joy in life again.

Who knows? Maybe all that’s perfectly true. What’s certain is that this fairy tale tends to shortchange the fine work that both of them did when they were on their own. Their latest comedy together, Mistress America, expands to Tarrant County this week, and while it’s not a piece of unadulterated joy like Frances Ha was, it is an amiable featherweight farce.

The main character is Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), a freshman literature student at Barnard College who’s feeling lonely living in New York City away from her family. On the advice of her soon-to-be-remarried mother (Kathryn Erbe), Tracy calls her future stepsister Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in the city. From the moment they meet in Times Square until they crash at Brooke’s apartment several hours later, Brooke does not stop talking about her impossibly glamorous life as a spin class instructor, middle-school tutor, and backup singer who aspires to be a clothing designer, antique collector, lifestyle guru, TV writer, and restaurateur.

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“I also freelance as an interior decorator,” she says. “There’s a laser hair-removal center [near the Bowery Hotel] that’s very hip. I did the waiting room.”

The way most people are when they’re on cocaine is how Brooke is all the time.

Given to issuing imperious dicta on all things au courant, Brooke is the latest in Baumbach’s gallery of bohemian caricatures. The twist is that Tracy knows this and is playing Eve Harrington to Brooke’s unsuccessful Margo Channing. When she’s with Brooke, Tracy nods her head approvingly at all her logorrheic outpourings, but back at school, she’s trying to win her way into the literary society by writing a vicious short story about a similar woman with tons of creative ideas and zero ability to follow them up. (“Her youth had died,” a draft reads, “and she was dragging around its rotting carcass.”) You probably saw Kirke when she played the trailer-park girl who robs Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, so playing an aspiring writer gives her a chance to demonstrate her range. The character of Tracy is something of a mess, but Kirke gives her a cagey performance, slouchy and sarcastic but willing to play demure to hide her ambition.

This stylized farce is in the mode of Preston Sturges or the Coen brothers, where nobody ever fully registers what anybody else is saying because they’re all busy waiting for their own turn to talk. Baumbach has the actors deliver their lines the moment that the previous speaker has stopped speaking, and it generates a breathless pace that you will find either intoxicating or infuriating. I’m in the former camp myself. Nowhere is the filmmakers’ feel for this sort of play better shown than in the extended climax, when a small party headed by Brooke and Tracy drops in unannounced on the Connecticut home of Brooke’s ex-fiancé (Michael Chernus) and the former college pal who stole him away (Heather Lind) to offer them a chance to invest in Brooke’s restaurant. Everyone spends the afternoon monomaniacally pursuing their own agendas, including a persnickety neighbor (Dean Wareham) who keeps popping in to complain about the cars blocking his driveway. No one ever bothers to ask what kind of food Brooke’s restaurant would serve, and she’s effectively cornered when asked to pitch the idea. (“It would have really heavy tables and chairs,” she says weakly.) Despite all that, her ex is still on fire to invest.

It’s all so beautifully orchestrated that you wish the material were up to it, instead of devolving into a pile of nonsense in which everyone gangs up on Tracy when her story comes to light. The movie wants us to appreciate Tracy’s criticism of Brooke but also love Brooke for her boundless enthusiasm for new beginnings. This is a hard balance to keep, and Baumbach and Gerwig fall off the wire. Even so, their partnership is still producing funny jokes and quotable lines. If your taste in humor runs to the sophisticated, Mistress America is a decent late-summer bet.

 

[box_info]Mistress America
Starring Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Rated R.[/box_info]

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