[This review is quite plot-heavy. I wouldn’t describe anything below as a ‘spoiler’, but I thought I’d give fair warning if you’re planning to watch this film.]
Noah Baumbach’s currently working at an admirable speed, and he has made another film that gently mocks the can-do enthusiasm of young New Yorkers, though on balance this year’s While We’re Young felt like a more sustained and less sympathetic attack on youthful hipsterdom and entitlement. Mistress America is co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, their second screenplay collaboration to date, and one that aims to repeat the earlier success they had with the excellent Frances Ha. Gerwig also co-stars as the flaky-but-supremely-confident Brooke, a woman who rips through the city like the Tasmanian Devil, but this isn’t just a case of director and co-writer treading water or making the same film once again: one or two character types may seem vaguely familiar, and there’s no sign of Baumbach’s interest in those approaching turning points in their lives waning, but this is a deftly-executed droll comedy in its own right and there’s a neat switch from screwball to farce after the second act.
The focus is partly on Brooke but mainly on her stepsister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke, who you may recognise from Gone Girl, in which coincidentally she played a character named Greta). Tracy is a college freshman and budding writer, intelligent but reserved and struggling to adapt to life in the big city. She seems to meet a kindred spirit in Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow writer who shares Tracy’s dream of getting accepted into a pompous literary society, members of which look down on everyone else with stony faces (it’s a witty spin on the whole fraternity / sorority pledging thing, and never overplayed). Tony, however, starts dating the understandably suspicious Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones); Tracy feels even lonelier than before, and arranges to meet Brooke for the first time, for company.
Gerwig and Kirke are such fun to watch during the following twenty or thirty minutes. Brooke lives in a cool-looking apartment and does (generally) cool-looking things: she sings with an indie band, sometimes works as an interior designer, teaches a gym class and even provides SAT tuition for kids, despite the fact she doesn’t seem particularly bright (at least not next to Tracy) and briefly mentions that her own scores were so low she couldn’t get into college. She is also intending to open a restaurant that doubles as a hair salon (and, er, community hang-out space), and has even secured financial backing for the venture, though it appears to hinge on the involvement of her boyfriend (who is never seen). Brooke appropriates smart things that Tracy says and breaks them down for Twitter, gets into an argument with a former classmate and gets locked out of her apartment; all the while Tracy is watching, making written and mental notes, with the intention of writing a story featuring a character transparently based on Brooke. Brooke is very interesting for a number of reasons, but with a series of non-careers on-the-go and an enthusiasm for projects that are never seen through (there’s a sub-plot about t-shirts she co-designed that her friend sells to J. Crew behind Brooke’s back) she’s also a car crash waiting to happen; her online profile is carefully-managed and yet there’s a falseness to it all (both women have essentially arrived in the city with the attitude that they can be anything and anyone, but with a twelve year age gap Brooke has had the headstart). Kirke plays Tracy so that she appears both fascinated by her new sister-to-be but also ghoulishly watching, and waiting, with her ulterior motive kept secret. Whether Gerwig and Baumbach are having a laugh at their own expense as writers here is anyone’s guess, but there is more than a whiff of self-depracation around their work together to date.
Nothing ever comes of it, but we occasionally see Tracy steal small objects, in keeping with the theme of her appropriating the lives of others. One of these is from Brooke’s apartment, and the other item comes from the big, suburban house belonging to Dylan (Michael Chernus) and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind); the former was Brooke’s fiancé, the latter was once her best friend until she stole the t-shirt idea and a pair of cats. The action shifts to this sleek, modernist grand design as Brooke pays a visit to seek further funding for her restaurant. Tracy, Tony and Nicolette are in tow as well, and the whole sequence provides a nice contrast with the city-set material. Also in the house, quite randomly, are pregnant Karen (Cindy Cheung) and grumpy neighbour Harold (musician Dean Wareham, who also provides the soundtrack with bandmate and wife Britta Phillips), and this is where the film detours (quite successfully, I think) into farce. And thus the characters argue, bump into one another on stairs and in corridors and walk in on things they’re not supposed to be walking in on, all carried out at breakneck speed while the plot nears a full stop. The highlight here is probably Brooke’s embarrassing pitch to multi-millionaire Dylan, which even includes a cringeworthy mimed rewind. It’s also a sad scene, as it reveals that she’ll probably never get the restaurant off the ground, as she simply lacks the business acumen and can’t even describe what kind of restaurant she actually wants (interestingly it sounds more like a surrogate home environment than an eatery, smartly linked to Brooke’s own background and the off-screen relationship taking place between her religious father and Tracy’s agnostic mother).
There’s a lot of verbal back-and-forth during the film, and not all of it succeeds, but when it does Mistress America is quite funny (in the usual Baumbach semi-muttered chuckle kind of way, rather than the kind of material that elicits out-and-out guffaws). The comic performances are excellent across the board, with the love triangle that develops between Tracy, Tony and Nicolette providing an unexpected highlight: I’d like to see more of Shear in particular, who gets the smart-arse student down pat and has excellent timing. At the centre of it all, both Gerwig and Kirke shine, and their scenes together (particularly in the screwball first half of the film) rattle along featuring the kind of repartee you’d usually expect to see from a long-established double act. They have chemistry in this platonic love story, while Gerwig in particular deserves a further mention for imbuing an essentially unlikable character with likability, ensuring that you’re actually rooting for Brooke by the end and wholly forgiving all of the pronounced, screwy behaviour. I could just as easily have watched an entire movie that only featured the two of them in New York, even though Mistress America ultimately falls short of the standard set by Frances Ha. Baumbach and Gerwig end with a scene that can easily be perceived as a dig at Los Angeles (or Hollywood in particular), and maybe (maybe) it betrays a certain smug, east coast loftiness from the newly-crowned King and Queen of Generation Flat White, but I can certainly forgive them while they’re making films about New York millennials as witty and breezy as this one.
And wow. I got to the end without once mentioning Woody A…
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung.
Cinematography: Sam Levy.
Editing: Jennifer Lame.
Music: Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips.
Running Time: 84 minutes.