After watching Noah Baumbach's 2015 comedy While We're Young, I thought, “You know, he's probably the new Woody Allen.” After watching his 2015 comedy Mistress America, I thought, “You know, he's probably the new Preston Sturges.” Either way, the man's movies are witty, intelligent pleasures, filled to the brim with snappy dialogue, delightful observations on a host of self-absorbed subcultures and entertaining performances. Mistress America is the closest he's come to making a full-blown screwball comedy, starting on a frisky, funny note and building to what may very well be the year's most ridiculously entertaining comic septic.
Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) is an 18-year-old college freshman and aspiring writer. Alas, the distinguished writing society at her school rejects her initial short story application, leaving Tracy feeling discouraged about her career goals. Meanwhile, she forms a new relationship with Brooke (Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha), her soon-to-be step-sister (Brooke's father will be marrying Tracy's mother in a few weeks). Brooke is a good deal older than Tracy (twelve years older, to be precise), but the two hit it off almost immediately and grow excited about the prospect of being sisters. Tracy is delighted by Brooke's company, but also immediately pegs her as an oblivious loser – the sort of free-spirited, impulsive person who has lots of big ideas and big goals but will never actually achieve any of them. Taking inspiration from their first evening together, Tracy makes Brooke the subject of another short story – a fairly cutting character study. Naturally, this detail will re-emerge later in the film.
Gerwig is always an appealing presence, but her turn in Mistress America might just be her most thoroughly enjoyable performance to date. Brooke is a delightful oddball; an effervescent dreamer whose remarkable self-absorption is matched by equally remarkable bursts of generosity. The brilliance of Gerwig's performance is that she consistently finds ways to surprise us while building a complicated, well-drawn character. The film's scant 84-minute running time feels like a direct result of Brooke's impetuous energy – she jumps headlong into situations others might tentatively walk into.
Kirke's Tracy is a more reserved character, but also a more malleable one. When we meet her, she's quiet, insecure, bookish and sweet. To say that Brooke is an inspirational figure for her would be an understatement, though not all of the inspiration is positive: in attempting to recreate Brooke's open-book honesty, Tracy ends up coming across as flat-out mean. Brooke is the sort of person Tracy wants to be, but she's also the sort of person Tracy wants to avoid becoming. In other words, Tracy wants Brooke's winning personality, but not her inability to actually accomplish things.
These two characters are part of the same generation, albeit at opposite ends of that generation. Like the assorted characters of HBO's Girls, these are children of privilege who are just beginning to discover that the rich, lavish world their parents enjoyed has run dry. There is precious little room left for aspiring artists who hope to turn their personal passion in something economically sound. First world problems? Sure, but the movie doesn't pretend otherwise.
Admittedly, the film's thematic ideas don't really come to the fore while you're watching the movie, because you're having too much fun with Baumbach's increasingly giddy banter and increasingly large cast of characters. By somewhere around the halfway point, Tracy and Brooke have been joined by Tracy's laid-back friend Tony (Matthew Shear, Taking Woodstock), Tony's wildly jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones, Blue Bloods), Brooke's estranged friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind, Turn: Washington's Spies), Mamie-Claire's wealthy husband Dylan (Michael Chernus, Orange is the New Black), a pregnant woman named Karen (Cindy Cheung, Lady in the Water) and a perplexed pediatrician named Harold (the film's co-composer Dean Wareham).
All of these folks end up colliding at Mamie-Clarie and Dylan's lavish country estate, where Brooke is hoping to convince Dylan to give her some money for the new restaurant she wants to start. Baumbach turns this would-be pitch meeting into a glorious screwball symphony of mixed motivations and exasperated arguments, zoning in on the sort of delightful rhythms of premium-grade Hawks and Sturges. Admittedly, the dialogue isn't particularly realistic – we all wish our zingers were so perfectly-timed and eloquently-phrased – but it's pure joy to listen to, and the extended sequence more than justifies the price of admission.
That sequence is Mistress America's biggest selling point, but it should be noted that Baumbach's direction is becoming nearly as interesting as his writing. While this film isn't as immediately striking on a visual level as Frances Ha (overrated, but awfully nice to look at), it's just as technically accomplished, demonstrating a real sense of geography and effectively evoking both the busy energy of New York City (something many movies have done, but still worth doing well) and the melancholy underpinnings of his story (aided considerably by a fine, synth-driven score from Wareham and Britta Phillips). It's one of the director's best films to date; a jubilant trifle that gains substance in retrospect.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
Release Year: 2015