I think Greta Gerwig may be Noah Baumbach’s saving grace, and Mistress America may be the closest they’ll come to creating a masterpiece. I say “saving grace” not necessarily as a slight against Baumbach’s talents as a filmmaker, (although this year’s While We’re Young was rather underwhelming) but as a testament to just how powerful and potent the two are as collaborators. They co-wrote the script together – it’s an airy, yet razor sharp, screwball comedy following Tracy, played superbly by Lola Kirke, throughout her first semester in college. She’s lonely, and aspires to be accepted into a pompous literary society at school. While talking to her mother on the phone one evening she describes her entire college experience as “that feeling of being at a party where you don’t know anyone.” This leads her mother to recommend that she contact Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be-step-sister. The two hit it off immediately – Brooke’s infectious energy equally breaks Tracy out of her shell and captivates her.
Herein lies the aforementioned “saving grace.” Baumbach’s wry and dry humor, poignant observations, and trademark melancholy are still on full display, but here they undercut and underline the blazing screwball comedy on the surface. As fantastic as Gerwig the actress is here (and she is fantastic), I think Gerwig the writer is perhaps even better. Mistress America is rapid fire – if one joke misses, the next one won’t, but hardly any miss at all. Gerwig and Baumbach are completely in sync, and the comedic timing is near flawless. It almost feels like Baumbach is being forced to keep up with Brooke (in a good way). Luckily, he pulls it off with aplomb. And did I mention this thing is lovely to look at? I’m convinced Gerwig the writer/actor elevates Baumbach the director to levels he’ll never reach on his own.
And it needed its flawless timing. While the whole film has a light, warm, zippy feel (punched up by an uber-catchy 80’s style synth score), I felt a bite to many of the moments that kept me from laughing as much as I should have. As a person who, tentatively, calls themselves a writer, Mistress America occasionally hit very close to home. Baumbach is once again working with characters living in a state of prolonged adolescence, but here Gerwig’s character has much more punch and drive. Rather than existing in a state of perpetual procrastination, Brooke’s inertia is caused by her ridiculous ambition – she wants to be everything and do everything, all at once. Her ambition and energy (heightened by Baumbach’s energetic direction) rubs off on Tracy, and the audience.
At first, Tracy truly believes that Brooke can achieve anything, but soon finds herself simultaneously in awe of Brooke and aware of her stagnation, farming Brooke for material to use in her forthcoming short story titled, you guessed it, “Mistress America.” These underlying layers of observational sharpness and social commentary recall the better films of Woody Allen at times. That said, while Mistress America the thought provoking movie is great, Mistress America the zany, electrifying screwball comedy is even better.
★★★★½ out of 5