The contradictory comedy of 'Mistress America'

“She opens her mouth to speak and/

What comes out's a mystery/

Thought about, not understood/

She's achin' to be.”

The Replacements song “Achin' to Be” should be the theme song of Noah Baumbach’s tough and funny new movie “Mistress America,” now showing at Liberty Hall.

For one, despite modern cars and phones that point to the contrary, this NYC-set comedy feels like it's set a decade or two ago (the song was released in 1989). But mostly, the film is about the desperate yearning for inner strength and confidence that ‘Mats songwriter Paul Westerberg was so good at channeling.

Normally, one would associate this theme with a young person’s coming-of-age story, and that’s at least partially true here. For Barnard College freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), her first semester is a big disappointment. She has few opportunities to be herself, be challenged or even find friends. Her literary ambitions seem to be going nowhere. But when she meets 30-year-old Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Baumbach), all that changes.

It’s also true that Brooke, well into her adult life, is still coming of age. If anything, her unfocused energy has provided inspiration for others who have gone on to success, while she continues to flail. (See also couple Gerwig and Baumbach’s 2012 collaboration “Frances Ha”).

While Tracy is borderline giving up, Brooke is still bursting with vitality — and a bunch of unformed ideas about opening a restaurant. Brooke knows that the end result of her new business venture should be like a support group or community center — she wants to call it “Mom’s” — but she has no idea what’s on the menu, and thinks the restaurant should also double as a hair salon.

The throwback feel partially comes from the clothes and the clip at which dialogue unfolds. That said, Baumbach has a firm grasp on the narcissism of today’s culture.

He understands the modern contradictions of standing outside of yourself while you’re talking; of being both casual and over-excited at the same time. Brooke talks of her mother’s death in the same sentence as frozen yogurt, for crissakes. At the same time, she gathers clever quips for tweets that she may or may not ever use, because she wants to be the best expression of herself online.

While New York film laureate Woody Allen’s new movies seem to be embalmed in some idealized version of the past, Baumbach finds a fresh approach to similarly W.A.S.P.-y, quasi-intellectual material. Like Allen, there’s the semi-autobiographical angle (Tracy is a writer), but “Mistress America” brings up '70s/'80s-era Woody — before his characters were too easily defined, with lots of value judgments placed upon them.

What is further energizing about Baumbach’s film is that it seems to defy any familiar pattern for a brisk hour or so before heading into straight-up screwball farce territory. The last 20 minutes bring many of the discordant themes home in the least preachy way possible: with all the characters facing their past and present, bouncing off each other in unlikely situations in a lavish New England house.

The best films have you so wrapped up in what’s happening that you don’t fully have time to process them until later, and “Mistress America” is one such movie. It asks us to confront our messy lives and our constant fear of failure and to seriously examine the way we define ourselves. But only after you stop laughing and the credits begin to roll.

“Mistress America” is 84 minutes and rated R for language including some sexual references.

"Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"

Speaking of contradictions, Brooke has got nothing on Steve Jobs.

In his new documentary, playing at the Tivoli Cinemas in Kansas City, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi from the Darkside,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”) profiles one of the century’s most well-known and revered figures, and it ain’t pretty.

“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” begins with several video testaments to the late Apple CEO, from both young and old, that will ring familiar in their hero-worshipping tone. But by the conclusion of its two-hour running time, Gibney (who narrates the film with personal reflections) lays out the clear costs of “changing the world.”

Jobs was a pioneer who sought (and succeeded) to make computers and electronic handheld devices personal (even as they tend to isolate us). How’s that for contradictory? He also pushed his family — and co-workers — away with a singular focus and unrelenting managerial style.

Put bluntly, the man’s personal values didn’t seem to match up with his clarity of vision. And his marketing strategy of using iconic game-changers like Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali to inspire people to “think different” didn’t jibe with his one-sided business practices.

On the other hand, former head of engineering Bob Belleville, who lost his family because of pressure put on him by Jobs while developing the Macintosh home computer, admits that his time at Apple was the most invigorating of his life.

It simply isn’t that easy to write off the Jobs’ extraordinary drive to succeed at all costs. The difference between Gibney’s documentary and other posthumous profiles of Jobs is that it doesn’t necessarily maintain a reverential tone toward its subject.

“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is 127 minutes and is rated R for some language.


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