xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
Noah Baumbach has been making movies for twenty years now, and they've nearly always been comedies of the sort that I call "radio with pictures"—not because of any inherent lack of filmmaking skill (he's quite a good director) but because his characters are often so deluded or bitter or ignorant or self-aggrandizing or otherwise unpleasant that I find myself watching certain scenes through the cracks between my fingers. "Kicking and Screaming," "Mr. Jealousy," "The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding" and "Greenberg" were all picture-radio incarnate: astute at detailing the sorts of people you try to avoid at parties (or who try to avoid you, maybe?) and at times unnervingly willing to stick the knife into characters, and you, and twist it.
Baumbach's collaborations since hooking up with onetime costar and now collaborator Greta Gerwig—whom he first worked with on "Greenberg"—have changed his tone. His movies are now slightly less scathing and a bit more accessible, but without for one moment sending the message that he's suddenly become nice and sweet. They feel even more like mid-period Woody Allen films than they already did, although Baumbach, like a lot of dialogue-driven American filmmakers, owes so much to Allen that this might have been inevitable no matter who he worked with. His latest, "Mistress America," gives Gerwig the sort of role that Diane Keaton would have knocked out of the park for Allen: Brooke, an almost-thirtysomething New Yorker who talks and talks without every actually seeming to listen, much less connect, with anyone else, and who wants to be influential and famous and successful but doesn't seem to have any sort of realistic plan for achieving that, or any particular talents to bring to bear on her goal.
Brooke isn't the main character of the film, though: that would be Tracy Fishcoe (Lola Kirke), a Columbia University student whose mother, Stevie (Kathryn Erbe), is about to marry Brooke's widowed dad. Tracy is an incoming freshman who doesn't know anyone in New York; she's never met Brooke, but her mom hopes Brooke will bond with her and become a companion or even mentor to her, and urges her daughter to make it happen.
Baumbach can be a marvelous, unsparing reporter on a certain slice of upper-middle-class to wealthy America. He brings that skill to bear here in the scenes of Tracy feeling out of her element. The satirical details of college student delusions of grandeur are expertly observed by Baumbach and his co-writer Gerwig, particularly the competition to get into a literary society that taps its new members by hitting them in the face with pies, then hands them briefcases to carry as emblems of their specialness. Brooke, her too-competitive classmate Tony (Matthew Shear), and Tony’s dour girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) are all sharply observed. Like many Baumbach characters, they're entitled and oblivious. They fantasize about skipping to the head of the cultural line, maybe collecting that Nobel for literature before they hit the big three-o. At the same time, the movie has trace elements of sympathy for the lonely and alienated: the scene where Tracy eats alone in a booth at a restaurant from a takeout container while listening to Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights" on the PA system and pondering her cracked cell phone screen captures minor-key depression perfectly.