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Brainy, funny but aloof, 'Mistress America' is not all it seems to be

Brainy, funny but aloof, 'Mistress America' is not all it seems to be
Lola Kirke as Tracy in "Mistress America." (David Feeney-Mosier / Fox Searchlight)

There's a funny, cringey scene in "Mistress America," the brainy new comedy from director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer, Greta Gerwig, in which an old acquaintance accosts Brooke, Gerwig's daffy, optimistic character, in a bar and calls her out for being a high school bully.

The scene embodies both the best and worst thing about "Mistress America," which is that Brooke is not who she's pretending to be.

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At the center of the film is the interesting idea that we're all putting on performances for each other; unfortunately, the manner in which "Mistress America" explores that theme also makes it a movie where moments of authenticity are scarce.

By the point of the bar scene, Brooke's phoniness has been clear to the audience for a while — Gerwig plays her character as overconfident in precisely the manner of people who know deep down that they're falling apart. But the bullying revelation seems to be news to Brooke's admiring, soon-to-be stepsister, Tracy, a bookish freshman at Barnard College played by Lola Kirke.

At least initially, Tracy is innocently caught in Brooke's web of charisma. Disappointed that she's failed to make the school literary journal and bewildered by her fellow classmates, Tracy is attracted to Brooke's all-knowing persona and decade more of life experience, and she signs on to help with Brooke's latest dream project, opening a restaurant.

"Mistress America" is Kirke's first leading role, after a small but memorable part as a trailer-trash scam artist in "Gone Girl," and her quiet intensity in the film is a nice complement to Gerwig's flibbertigibbety striver.

Gerwig's strength as an actress is her energy, which seems bottomless here, if a little tiring. There were moments when I wanted Brooke to find a Xanax in her purse.

"Must we document, everything? Must we?" Brooke says, with obvious delight, when a friend snaps a picture of her kissing a guy at a party. Of course, Brooke wants to be documented in this social butterfly moment, ideally with a flattering Instagram filter.

Yet Gerwig shows a perfect vulnerability in another scene when Brooke is on the phone with her father and her well of sadness burbles out. The moment offers a rare glimpse of the woman behind the mask and helps earn the audience's empathy. But the movie doesn't leave room for many scenes like it, as it races along to a third-act drawing-room farce.

That sequence, set in a giant, modern, glass house in Connecticut, is a triumph of comedic staging and editing, as fingers are pointed and allegiances shifted.

Baumbach makes great use of the many fun, lively actors he has cast, including Matthew Shear as Tracy's twitchy classmate and literary confidant, Tony, and Michael Chernus as Brooke's rich ex-boyfriend, Dylan, who still seems to find Brooke endearing, possibly because she's stuck in an adolescent phase of life that he misses, like that bag of weed he's trying to find.

The whole movie also gets a fun, fizzy lift from its soundtrack, a synth-pop score by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.

The problem is that although the characters in "Mistress America" deliver witty, fast-paced dialogue, they rarely actually seem to be talking to each other, instead facing the audience.

"You're funny cause you don't know you're funny," Dylan tells Brooke.

"I know I'm funny," she replies, "There's nothing I don't know about myself. That's why I can't do therapy."

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The movie is the second script that Baumbach and Gerwig have made together as a starring vehicle for Gerwig, after 2012's "Frances Ha." Like that film, "Mistress America" explores engaging ideas — the life of an artist, the tenor of female friendship, the role of class — but does so through an uncomfortably self-conscious character.

Brooke feels like someone I might know, it's true, but, to borrow an idea from politics, she's not someone I'd want to get a beer with.

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'Mistress America'

MPAA rating: R, for language, including some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark, West L.A.

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