An old-fashioned comedy about Generation Y wanderers.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s 2012 collaboration Frances Ha cemented them as every indie lover’s favorite power duo and their new, polished comedy Mistress America will only make their fans grow fonder. It’s not quite the modern masterpiece their first offering was, but with some sharp acting and an exceptionally written script, it’s a winner in its own way. Baumbach‘s earlier film from this year, While We’re Young got generational comedy all wrong; Gerwig may just be his lucky charm because Mistress America gets it all right.
As in Frances Ha, Gerwig again co-writes and stars, this time playing Brooke, a New York City socialite with an overwhelming go-getter attitude. She’s got big dreams and plenty of them, but she’s too freewheeling and allergic to commitment to bring any of them to light. She’s a self-absorbed dunderheaded, and she’s all talk, but she doesn’t know it. Her wide-eyed delusion is what makes her such a charmer.
Falling for Brooke is a breeze, and none fall harder than her soon-to-be stepsister, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman dead set on writing for her school’s prestigious literary magazine. It isn’t as lofty a dream as Brooke’s Manhattan fantasies (opening a hair salon/restaurant/clubhouse is my favorite), but then again, Tracy is about ten years younger and belongs to a more skeptical, unambitious generation. After a wild night in the city together, Tracy finds herself borderline infatuated with her future big sis. She becomes so obsessed, in fact, that she uses Brooke as the subject of the short story she’s submitting to the magazine. Brooke’s misadventures prove to be just the inspiration Tracy needs to earn her way onto the mag, but the sometimes unflattering literary portrayal doesn’t stay hidden from Brooke for long.
Mistress America is a tale of two women out of sync with the real world, stumbling through life until they bump into each other and tumble downhill. It’s clear Tracy’s got more intellect in her little finger than Brooke has in her whole body, but Brooke represents jubilance and self-worth, things Tracy thinks may be more important in life than all the smarts in the world. The dynamic between the two characters is rich and layered and hilarious, and they’re both fully realized representatives of their respective age groups. Baumbach’s characterizations of hipster youth in While We’re Young (embodied by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) weren’t nearly as interesting or believable as Tracy. It’s no doubt Gerwig’s touch that gives Mistress America the vitality While We’re Young lacks.
The movie lifts off in the third act, which is essentially a chamber piece set in a sprawling, modernist Greenwich, Conn. manse. Brooke’s got a score to settle with her “ex-friend and nemesis,” Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who stole her brilliant T-shirt idea (of “hard looking flowers with skulls and shit”), her super rich fiancé (Michael Chernus) and her cats. Determined to convince her loaded ex to finance her salon/brasserie, she shows up at their front doorstep. Along on the mission are Tracy, her school friend/crush Tony (Matthew Shear) and his relentlessly jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones).
A spiraling volley of dialogue gradually whips up as all of the characters (plus a few random outliers) engage in a dizzying scene that sees all of the story’s dramatic threads escalate at once, in one room. It’s staggering how sharply written it is considering the amount of active participants in the scene almost reaches the double digits. It evokes the screwball comedies of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s (His Girl Friday comes to mind), and it’s the movie’s grand showcase. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
The cast is without a weak link (Shear occasionally threatens to steal the show with the hysterical, nasally way he screams, “NICOLETTE!”), but Kirke and Gerwig are the crowning jewels. Their work is so fluid and natural that, even when the movie flirts with overt theatricality, they stay grounded and feel like real people. This is one of the funniest films Baumbach’s ever made, and the hope is that Gerwig adopts some of Brooke’s can-do spirit and churns out more movies like this for us to feast upon.