Review: Mistress America (2015)

I never thought I’d love a Noah Baumbach film, but here we are. Baumbach’s films are generally too sour to my taste, but when working with Greta Gerwig as a co-writer, as in Frances Ha, his misanthropy is balanced out by her infectious optimism. She makes him a better, less cynical filmmaker. Their latest collaboration, Mistress America, is Baumbach’s best film by far, a delightful screwball comedy that analyzes the same artists and hipster intellectuals that Baumbach usually explores, but that does so with an overwhelmingly optimistic energy that erases any of his usual bitterness. Simply put, Mistress America is a blast.

The film stars Lola Kirke as Tracy Fishko, a college freshman and aspiring writer who’s overwhelmed by college and living away from home for the first time in her life. Tracy finds guidance in the form of her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an optimistic whirlwind of a person who expresses interest in and enthusiasm for every subject and life experience. Brooke tinkers in all manner of careers, but has latched onto none. She brings Tracy along for the ride as she takes New York City by storm on a nightly basis, and Tracy soon finds herself enamoured with Brooke’s larger-than-life personality and lifestyle.

The bridge between reality and one’s projection of reality is a large focus here, as it has been for much of Baumbach’s work. He loves to focus on characters that project a sense of a life well-lived, as if these people believe they are the lead characters in their own novels. The difference between Mistress America and Baumbach’s earlier films (and its saving grace) is that Tracy goes into her relationship with Brooke with eyes wide open. She is aware of Brooke’s shortcomings and delusions. For example, she knows that Brooke always brings up her mother’s recent death but never discusses her mother’s life, using the parental loss as a crutch to excuse her failures. She also realizes that Brooke’s ideas are so fanciful they can only exist in her own head. Because of this, there’s never an opportunity for Tracy to be overwhelmed by the disconnect and grow angry. In theory, this choice reduces the film’s narrative conflict, which can be a bad thing, but in practice, it keeps Tracy, and the film, hopeful. Bitterness is never allowed to enter the picture. Instead, Tracy knows about all these flaws and loves Brooke anyway. The viewer does too.

It helps greatly that Greta Gerwig is such a positive screen presence and that Brooke’s eccentricities do more damage to herself than to others. She’s flighty and aloof, much as Gerwig’s character was in Frances Ha, but instead of being the lovable screw-up of that film, she’s more a dynamo of directionless energy. She suffers from a surplus of ambition and from a lack of follow-through. Her performance is so energetic and entertaining, it commands the film.

The rhythm and style of Mistress America borrows from Gerwig’s energy. Baumbach’s camera is loose here, free to follow the characters, not tied to any specific style, be it the pseudo-Woody Allen compositions of While We’re Young or the New Wave-lite of Frances Ha. His editing is mosaic. Many shots and scenes last mere seconds. The film’s early scenes follow Tracy’s day-to-day life, cutting from one classroom to another, from one new experience to the next, capturing the enthralling but shallow rush that can be the first days of college.

Mistress America is a short film, and once Brooke is introduced its 84 minutes blow by. You end up almost wishing there was more to it, because the characters are such a delight to spend time with. But the film, as is, is perfectly calculated, short enough so as to avoid any false steps, but still capable of some depth amidst the hilarity.

Did I mention the film is hilarious? An extended sequence late in the film becomes a miniature chamber piece as Brooke, Tracy, and her friends head to Brooke’s ex’s house in Connecticut to extort some money for a proposed restaurant. The conversation does not go as planned and Baumbach lets it run its full course, introducing new characters to the dialogue, allowing other characters who were mere set-dressing to become engaged, letting each and every character bounce off each other at a mile a minute. Its overlapping dialogue and razor-sharp editing purposefully evokes the golden age of Hepburn and Tracy, Stanwyck and Fonda. It’s the best piece of screwball entertainment in decades.

In the end, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mistress America is only a trifle of a film, as it’s so brief and provides you with so much pleasure. But it isn’t. It says something wise about how we latch onto the energy of others older and more worldly than ourselves, whether consciously or not. It speaks to an essential step in growing older and learning about your own ability to take the world by the horns. And it does so while being riotously funny. I cannot think of a better time I’ve had at the movies this year.

9 out of 10

Mistress America (2015, USA)

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung, Dean Wareheim.