It’s impossible to deny the influence Greta Gerwig has had on Noah Baumbach since she became the apple of his cinematic (and romantic) eye with 2012’s “Frances Ha”. No longer content to dwell on comically self-loathing characters, Baumbach has found a new comedic zeal with Gerwig as his co-writer and muse. Their latest collaboration, “Mistress America”, is an old-style screwball comedy that continues Baumbach’s emotional upswing and Gerwig’s gusto for playing larger-than-life characters.
A little like “Frances Ha”‘s frantic sibling, Mistress America explores, in arguably Baumbach’s funniest screenplay yet, the strength of female friendships against the need to assert one’s individuality. Stealing the show from scene one is the terrific Lola Kirke as Tracy, a plain-Jane 18-year-old struggling to adjust to college life in Manhattan. An aspiring writer whose talent is perhaps marginal at best, Tracy doesn’t fit in with her more-gifted peers and is too socially awkward to totally click with those she has most in common with. She’s able to attract the friendship of awkward classmate Tony (the hilarious Matthew Shear), but can’t hold his attention for long. With loneliness setting in she reluctantly dials up her future sister-in-law Brooke (Gerwig), who she’s never met, and suddenly her world increases a thousand-fold.
Brooke turns out to be an absolute force of nature sweeping through Manhattan like a hurricane. She scoops up Tracy’s dull life, as well, engulfing her in firestorm of opinions and ideas, introducing her to colorful new people who are all just as successful as Brooke is. She has apparently done everything, met everyone, and been everywhere (in New York, anyway). Brooke offers up so much information at a rapid-fire clip that she quickly becomes a walking legend; it’s impossible to figure out what’s real and what’s made up out of whole cloth. For Tracy it doesn’t really matter; Brooke is giving her the exciting city life she always hoped for, and it gets her creative juices flowing.
All it takes is one wild night out on the town to get Tracy writing again, with Brooke’s life serving as the springboard to her newest venture. Tracy is just happy to be by her side, whether it be as a friend, little sister-to-be, or as personal assistant. Brooke becomes something of an unofficial mentor with Tracy as her young padewan. But things aren’t all great, and soon the bloom starts to come off Brooke’s rose when failures begin to mount. She’s getting older and the carefree lifestyle that has served her so well can’t last forever. And in the midst of those failures, Brooke’s narcissism begins to peek out, leading to an inevitable rift between the two women.
Taking a little bit of time to get moving, the film picks up steam from the moment Gerwig makes her memorable Times Square entrance. And what a role it turns out to be for her. Brooke is the kind of outsized character we’d expect someone like Bette Midler to devour with glee, and Gerwig proves to be more than a match for it. Her innate vitality proves to be a perfect fit for the film’s blistering pace, with character zipping non-sequiturs and one-liners past one another at a remarkable clip.
Inspired by the screwball comedies of Howard Hawkes, Ernst Lubich, and Peter Bogdanovich, along with a touch of John Hughes, “Mistress America” is a delightful yet poignant farce that makes the utmost use of its talented director and stars. It’s best exemplified in an incredibly well-staged scene in which all of the film’s characters are assembled in a single location where every subplot, big and small, can get bounced around. It may be the best scene Baumbach has ever directed juggling so much all at once, but he gets a lot of help from his cast, many of whom are theater veterans used to the staged madness. Kirke, who some may recognize from David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, gives a deceptively intense performance that only grows in stature. And at the center of it is Gerwig, who literally runs through the entire gamut of emotions during this incredible sequence, and somehow finds a way to make all of them meaningful. If there’s an issue it’s the downbeat, maudlin conclusion that wraps up neater than the rest of the film would have us believe is possible.
While the jokes come a mile a minute, there are more serious issues always lurking beneath the surface. Similar to Baumbach’s terrific coming-of-middle age dramedy “While We’re Young”, the mentor/student relationship is looked upon as a potentially thorny dynamic destined for betrayal. Most prominent is the bond formed between two women just trying to find their way. That there isn’t some kind of forced male/female romance says a lot for the type of movies Gerwig and Baumbach are trying to make. Strip away all of the jokes, catchy quotes (of which there are tons), and the madcap frenzy and what you’ve got is an incredible honest and engaging story with two deeply-layered female characters. Those don’t come around nearly enough, but hopefully “Mistress America” can be the start of a great trend.