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MISTRESS AMERICA

A sharp, sophisticated modern screwball comedy that recalls its forties predecessors without being slavishly imitative, “Mistress America” confirms Noah Baumbach’s status as the new generation’s Woody Allen, a prolific if uneven filmmaker with a distinctive voice and a sharp eye for absurdity who’s also capable of an underlying strain of poignancy. The major difference is that he’s not so prone to the narcissism that has often affected the older man’s work, though as in his earlier film “Frances Ha” he takes the opportunity to spotlight his significant other, Greta Gerwig, who also (as in “Frances”) co-wrote the script.

The initial focus is on Tracy (Lola Kirke), who arrives in New York City as a Barnard College freshman and finds the campus literary scene to which she aspires rather intimidating, though she quickly develops a friendship with another nervous newbie, Tony (Matthew Shear). Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) suggests that she look up Brooke (Gerwig), the daughter of the man scheduled to become her new father-in-law, and though Tracy’s reluctant to contact someone so old (Brooke’s thirty!), she eventually gives her a call. Brooke turns out to be extraordinarily welcoming and arranges a meeting in Times Square.

Brooke is also incredibly effervescent and well-connected, as well as overflowing with entrepreneurial dreams that, unhappily, never seem to progress beyond the planning stage. She’s an aerobics instructor who also claims to do interior decorating, but is especially notable as a fixture at clubs, parties and gallery events, and has in mind writing a superheroine comic book called Mistress America and opening a restaurant that will be the best of everything. She also has a wealthy boyfriend named Stavros, she enthusiastically reports, but he’s off in Greece doing something or other.

Tracy is initially enthralled by Brooke, and happily becomes a hanger-on. Indeed, she’s so taken with her new, endlessly exuberant friend that she begins to conceive of a story based on her that might just win her membership in the snooty Barnard literary society. Of course, she’s oblivious to the fact that she might just be taking advantage of Brooke, who might not appreciate having her life serve as the inspiration for a college kid’s semi-fictionalized paper.

And, of course, Brooke’s ambitious plans—as well as her romantic fantasies—all fall through, leaving her desperate somehow to recoup. Her answer is a trip out to Greenwich, Connecticut, where her old friend and now bitter rival Marie-Claire (Heather Lind), who she claims stole her idea for successful clothing line (as well as her cats), is now living in suburban luxury with Dylan (Michael Chernus), a man whom she also snatched from Brooke. The plan is to coax funds for the restaurant from the old boyfriend and after a fashion Brooke succeeds, though not with the outcome she’d been hoping for. But the episode is drawn in true screwball form, with Brooke being driven to Connecticut by shy Tony, with Tracy and his new, suspicious girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) in tow, and a slew of other characters—an antagonistic neighbor and a bevy of pregnant women holding a book club session—dragged into Brooke’s sales pitch, during which news of Tracy’s story also leaks out. It’s the sort of elaborate one-entrance-after-another contraption that one often finds in the finales of comic opera.

“Mistress America” is buoyed by Gerwig, whose breezy, scatterbrained turn channels some of Hollywood’s great comediennes of the past—Carole Lombard, for example. But she also brings to Brooke a glimmer of the insecurity that she’s so anxious to hide from the world. Kirke is fine in what is essentially the straight-man role, but the supporting cast is replete with the sort of stellar character performers that Preston Sturges once formed into a repertory company, among whom Shears stands out as the infatuated Tony, a fellow Tracy continues to depend on even after he’s moved on.

On the technical side, the picture’s fine, with mostly workmanlike cinematography by Sam Levy that turns more virtuosic in the tracking shots inside Dylan’s Connecticut mansion and spiffy editing by Jennifer Lane. The production design (Sam Lisenco), art direction (Ashley Fenton), set decoration (Katie Hickman) and costume design (Sarah Mae Burton) all contribute to an unerring sense of personality and place, and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips contribute an idiosyncratic score that somehow feels just right.

Like Allen’s films and his own up to this point, Baumbach (and Gerwig’s) “Mistress America” will probably draw a small, select viewership. Others who gorge on the assembly line of raunchy Hollywood comedies won’t know how much better they could have it if they just stepped down the megaplex hall.

WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS

The backdrop—the Electronic Dance Music scene in Los Angeles—might be hip and edgy, but what happens against it in Max Joseph’s movie is as conventional and musty as a forties melodrama. Despite being jazzed up with woozy camerawork, kinetic editing and splashy graphics, “We Are Your Friends” is old-fashioned hooey.

Zac Efron stars as Cole, a guy from the San Fernando Valley—Hollywood’s poor cousin—who would very much like to become a DJ in L.A.’s raucous dance scene and win fame and fortune like that of James Reed (Wes Bentley), a celebrity in the field whose appearances Cole and his buddies—volatile Mason (Jonny Weston), would-be actor Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and hanger-on Squirrel (Alex Shaffer)—help to promote for club access and free drinks. Cole hunches over his laptop to fashion a track that will get his foot in the door and lead to break-out success.

His big opportunity arises in a chance meeting with Reed outside a club called Social. Reed invites him to a party where they hobnob with the slick set and ingest drugs that allow Joseph—who’s made a name for himself with music videos, commercials, Internet postings and the MTV series “Catfish”—to indulge in a hallucinatory sequence combining animation and live action to depict their effect. Reed may be a cynical, boozy guy, but he takes Cole under his wing, urging the kid to find his own voice rather than trying to copy others and giving him access to his private studio to experiment. He even hires the younger man to preside at a pool party at his place, getting the guests gyrating to the beats he fashions from the console.

But predictable problems undermine Cole’s smooth road to success. One involves the behavior of his long-time friends, who cause a disturbance at Reed’s party; Mason in particular acts the roughhouse boor. He’s also responsible for hooking up his pals with sleazy Paige (Jon Bernthal), who runs a boiler-room style real-estate operation that seeks out homeowners faced with foreclosure for possible fleecing. Becoming one of Paige’s phone solicitors, Cole is duly disillusioned when he lures a single mother desperate to keep her house into Paige’s orbit and Paige persuades her to sign over the house to him for eventual sale at a big profit. Cole struggles with his conscience over taking advantage of people, even though the job is lucrative and allows the quartet to get an apartment of their own, where they do drugs and booze to the heart’s content.

An even bigger problem involves Reed’s young, pretty girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who—we eventually learn—dropped out of Stanford because she couldn’t afford the tab. It’s inevitable that she and Cole should find their way into the sack and that Reed should find out about it. Needless to say, he’s not pleased, and it ruptures the men’s friendship—as well as Cole’s chance to open for James at a summer festival. Happily the story has a fairy-tale ending as Cole finds the material for his breakthrough track in the sounds of his own life, does the right thing when it comes to resolving his doubts about Paige, and begins a sweet courtship of the fired Sophie, now a waitress but returning to school.

All of this seems exhumed from a Melodrama Playbook, and the flashy milieu and Joseph’s cinematic pizzazz can’t hide the fact. And we haven’t yet mentioned that Cole’s redemptive turn is occasioned by the death of a major character whose doom is so obvious from his first appearance that he might as well be wearing a sign identifying him as the coming subject of a brief funeral scene. There’s nothing in the script that Joseph and Megan Oppenheimer have cobbled together that doesn’t seem lifted from previous films, from “All About Eve” on.

The sole truly enjoyable aspect of “We Are Your Friends” comes from watching Wes Bentley, who’s had a rocky career, sink his teeth into a meaty role at last. He brings alive Reed’s world-weary, seen-it-all attitude and delivers the screenplay’s best lines with a knowing wink. As for Efron, he suffers mightily—so much that at times you think he might be feeling the effects of a persistent stomach ailment. At least he gets to relax somewhat in his scenes with Ratajkowski, although in those he shifts into puppy-dog demeanor reminiscent of his “High School Musical” days. Weston and Bernthal certainly come across as obnoxious—which, admittedly, is the point—while Fernandez and Shaffer hover at the fringes of the action, basically nondescript. And while on the technical side Joseph and his collaborators—cinematographer Brett Pawlak, editors Terel Gibson and David Diliberto, production designer Maya Sigel, art director Shannon Kemp, set decorator Siobhan O’Brien and costumer Christie Wittenborn, as well as the effects artists—strive for some visual panache, the result is never as eye-catching as they obviously hope. Even the throbbing music isn’t as compelling as it should be.

So even if you think that the EDM milieu deserves to be captured on film, “We Are Your Friends” proves a wan, cliché-ridden attempt at doing so.