Stories based on a true story often face the detriment of audiences knowing how it’s all going to end. That will certainly be the case for many with The Most Hated Woman in America, the decade-spanning biopic/thriller focused on controversial public figure Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but it’s people like me (of the millennial variety) who may not remember this striking true story that will benefit most from its true-to-life gnarls. Activist turned founder of the American Atheists organization, O’Hair drew criticism far and wide. When she, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin are kidnapped, her notoriety is so severe, her bonds to even those who share the same blood so crimped and discarded, that no one even bothered looking for her. She remained a hostage for going on two weeks before…well I’ll let the uninitiated discover that for themselves.
An old flame forks her way back into the life of a married man in Joshua Martson‘s mysterious and somewhat satisfying Complete Unknown. Marston struck a chord with debut Maria Full of Grace, which played Sundance 12 years ago, giving a drug mule a face in performer Catalina Sandino Moreno. With Complete Unknown, the Californian director harnesses a selfsame ability to craft complex female leads but allows the narrative to come to tatters as it crests its many tonal shifts. Read More
An old flame forks her way back into the life of a married man in Joshua Marston‘s mysterious and somewhat satisfying Complete Unknown. Marston struck a chord with debut Maria Full of Grace, which played Sundance 12 years ago, giving a drug mule a face in performer Catalina Sandino Moreno. With Complete Unknown, the Californian director harnesses a selfsame ability to craft complex female leads but allows the narrative to come to tatters as it crests its many tonal shifts. Read More
*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.
Having retired from his role as the Hiphopopotamus, Jemaine Clement frequents our living rooms and theaters all too infrequently. His 2014 cameo in Muppets Most Wanted didn’t nearly suffice to fill our favorite Kiwi quotient and we’ve yet to take in his lauded vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows [Editor’s note: we’ve now seen Shadows. We loved it.] Nor can we really kid ourselves into believing that Clement’s existence beyond Flight of the Concords has been far-reaching – though his role as Boris the Animal was an easy highlight of Men in Black 3 and tapped into his unrealized Hollywood potential. So it’s with a heaving sigh of relief that we can announce that Clement has finally been given a role worthy of his gawky stature in the delightful, funny and tender People, Places, Things. Read More
Having retired from his role as the Hiphopopotamus, Jemaine Clement frequents our living rooms and theaters all too infrequently. His 2014 cameo in Muppets Most Wanted didn’t nearly suffice to fill our favorite Kiwi quotient and we’ve yet to take in his lauded vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (though we eagerly anticipated its eventual stateside arrival.) Nor can we really kid ourselves into believing that Clement’s existence beyond Flight of the Concords has been far-reaching – though his role as Boris the Animal was an easy highlight of Men in Black 3 and tapped into his unrealized Hollywood potential. So it’s with a heaving sigh of relief that we can announce that Clement has finally been given a role worthy of his gawky stature in the delightful, funny and tender People, Places, Things.
Going for the heart and the belly laugh with each delicately placed jab, Jim Strouse tells a humbling NYC dramedy that would feel at home amongst HBO’s heady comedic lineup. People, Places, Things opens with a man and his wife unhappily in marriage, publicly wrenched apart by a birthday party affair (all the more embarrassingly at the hands of the not-so-sexy Michael Chernus) and later forced to reconcile for the sake of their twin daughters.
Clement plays Will, a graphic novel artist and a teacher at the School of Visual Arts (where Strouse himself works and teaches) going through the motions of adulthood. His long-standing indifference with the world is reflected by a series of simplistic but affecting black-and-white illustrations in a yet-unfinished comic book autobiography. Will’s coy about the autobiographical nature of this illustrated tell-all but his book’s character is a spitting image down to the scruffy-headed mop of the toothy New Zealander. Gentle heartbreak sets in as Strouse flips through frame after frame of the book’s protagonist/Will-stand-in looking lost and alone with a speech bubble persistently asking for “more space.” His parents, his friends, his wife, all have left him craving breathing room and now that he has it, the reality of solicitude slaps him heartily with the question of “Well what now?”
If there’s one (or two) things that Will does not want space from, it’s his daughters and as the narrative turns towards Will taking on increasing responsibility for his children and accruing more time with their fast-aging antics, we get a sense of his potential as a father. Along the way, Will is propositioned by student Kat (Jessica Williams) and get’s his panties all in a bunch about this or that being inappropriate. “Gross,” Kat mutters and fills him in on the fact that she’s in fact (unsuccesfully) trying to hook him up with her more age-appropriate but totally-bangin’-for-her-age mother, Diane (Regina Hall.)
Strouse’s saga of arrested maturation and the awkward footing towards becoming a reputable parental figure is presented with a soft earnest but is special for another prominent reason. Notably forward-looking in his depiction of race, Strouse skirts calling attention to the bi-racial relationship that develops by focusing on the inner-workings rather than the outer makeup of his characters. And for good reason. Hall and Clement make a great match, her sage advice clashes ever so gently against his accidental aloofness and their chemistry sparkles.
If there’s anything holding People, Places, Things back it’s how slight it all feels – another solid entry into the increasingly salient category of elevated rom-com. But we must credit Strouse some major points for the manor in which he moves the dial forward with a gently nonchalant but entirely progressive depiction of romantic race relations. To destigmatize is a powerful thing, especially when you don’t even realize it’s happening.
Noah Baumbach again arrives in auspicious fashion, delivering a fast-talking farcical bumblebee of a film whose honey is sweet and sting is bruising. It’s as much a diatribe about the fickle nature of youth as it is a pure slapstick comedy, featuring a humdinger of a hipster prophet in the form of a footloose Greta Gerwig. Baumbach’s latest is also decidedly his lightest, opting for a kind of 21st century update to the surrealist verisimilitude of “I Love Lucy” or a feminist take on “The Three Stooges” – that is, it’s his brand of “But ours goes to 11” absurd. Everything he and his characters touch upon is based in reality – on someone, on something, on somewhere – but is forcefully exaggerated in its screwy presentation. As such, Mistress America has allowed Baumbach and Gerwig to craft modern day archetypes – the awkwardly desirable nerd, the college-bound tabula rasa, the hipster goddess – and mock them to high heavens in pure unapologetically absurdist manner.
Looking back at the early days of Noah Baumbach, you’d have difficulty coupling wry dark dramas like The Squid and the Whale with the bouncy playfulness of a film like Mistress America. And that’s because Baumbach is really a changed man. In the light of his muse Greta Gerwig, he’s adopted a younger, hipper, more feminist persona – one that casts mockery on the exploits of youngsters while genuinely addressing their palpable toil. Again writing with star Gerwig, Baumbach has constructed what is easily his most exuberantly brash film yet – chartering a collision course with contemporary beatnik culture at neck break speeds and spilling out a messy monument in its wake.
Mistress America circles the risible exploits of nubile NYU freshman Tracy (breakout star Lola Kirke). Arriving at college full of aspirations but unsure of the channels to her academic and social success, she falls in with the lower tier of wannabe student authors, all scrambling to join the elitist, “self-elected” lot of Mobius Lit Society. Struggling with low-grade depression via ennui, Tracy – at the behest of her mother – reaches out to Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be-stepsister. Within no time, Tracy’s head over heels for this desperately chic new friend/family member, beginning an odd cycle of shaggy glamor and fantastical aspirations that caps off in a single-location third act that’s cunningly madcap.
All of Baumbach and Gerwig’s witticisms boil down to one central character desire: Brooke’s dream of opening a community restaurant simply named “Mom’s”. It’s a place where you’ll feel at home; where writers will toil in the corner over carafes of wine; a place that will double as an European-style shoppe in the daytime; where the chefs and waiters will share humble plates of pasta after their shift; a venue where you can go to get your hair styled and cut. Wait what? Brooke’s business notions are idealistic and infantile, the result of society egging on an overdeveloped sense of “Yes, We Can!” But if there’s one thing Brooke can do, it’s talk. And talk and talk and talk. Wheeling herself in circles, those surrounding her are apt to agree with her undeveloped business ideas because of her overdeveloped enthusiasm.
Baumbach and Gerwig’s commentary applies not only to the flighty youth at their center but to the capricious investors willing to back such an unlikely success. The fact that Brooke is able to secure a small litany of people willing to involve themselves in such a blatant fiasco is a testament to her charmed people skills but also a representation of business dinosaurs not knowing shit from Shinola.
It’s literal insanity by way of investment, our filmmakers’ way of mocking old business moguls desperate for a social media foot-in-the-door. Our generation’s method of marketing and e-commerce may look obtuse from the outside in but it’s representative of a system that’s been irrevocably altered. That the Old Guard is largely unable to discern brilliant ideas from featherbrained ones only adds to the mess. Only new-age affluence – in the form of Sundance 2015-frequenter Michael Chernus – can discern the hogwash through Brooke’s fog of whimsical idealism.
All of Mistress America‘s silly-serious discourse adds up to a statement on how the youth of today is itself silly-serious – self-distracted, partially arrogant and full of hot air – and is lovingly executed by a talented duo moving forward at blinding speeds. Their sophomore feature admittedly never reaches the dramatic heights of their previous collaboration, Frances Ha, but nor is it attempting to dig in that selfsame plot. Instead, they’ve crafted something that errs more on the side of the theater; a brash caricature of modernity scarified with bang-up wit. The second resulting love child of Baumbach and Gerwig is unlike most; an uneven, playful, totally daffy farce totally worthy of its lofty asking price.