Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, isn’t particularly interested in being subtle about its characters, their personalities and their motivations, and it’s all the better because of it. One young woman sits alone at a diner with an empty plate of food in front of her until she receives the phone call that changes her life, as Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” plays quietly in the distance. Another woman — older but just as immature as the other in ways slowly revealed as the film progresses — diverts nearly all conversation into something that involves discussing her. Even when discussing her restaurant, she says, “I wanna be the place that people run to.” It’s all about her, even when it’s not, and Mistress America is all about how utterly fascinating this kind of person is.
Offering up too much plot for Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s second collaboration as writers would spoil much of the fun that comes from watching t he protagonists just sort of move through the nonsense situations they get themselves into. When it comes to direction and atmosphere, the film feels straight out of John Hughes’ drawing book, and not in a bad way; Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips’ synth-pop score in particular a gorgeous touch. But the collaborative script is something entirely different, and whip-smart to boot.
It’s indebted to screwball comedies of an era long-gone, those by Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, with Gerwig’s character emitting the essence of leading ladies like Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck without ever feeling like a cheap imitation. This, of course, isn’t to say that others haven’t been successful in making their own screwball films — take Joel and Ethan Coen as the prime examples of transposing those elements into modern works — but characters this fast-talking and charming haven’t been done this well in a long time (outside of, maybe, Gilmore Girls).
And maybe that parenthetical show reference could go hand in hand with Mistress in the way it actually cares about the very flawed, but fascinating and independent women it’s exploring. Tracy (Lola Kirke), with her big sweaters and inability to find a place in college, fits the bill for exactly the kind of character suited to tell the story of Mistress America. She’s a lonely writer, shafted by the campus writing club and by her only friend Tony (Matthew Shear) as soon as he gets a possessive girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). But as soon as she meets her soon-to-be sister, Brooke (Gerwig), she’s found the perfect subject: a woman who is opinionated, self-involved, brash, but, ultimately, a great goddamn influence on Tracy, both as a writer and as a human being.
“There’s nothing I don’t know about myself; that’s why I can’t do therapy,” Brooke states at one point, and you can tell she really believes it. Both characters do and it’s why they’re a perfect match, drawn to each other even though they’re in a toxic relationship. For all its wit and snappy dialogue, which is most pronounced in a segment where practically every introduced character is metaphorically throwing rocks in a glass house, what’s most interesting about the film is watching its characters both fail and grow. Even though it doesn’t quite know how to deliver on its denouement — though its ending is preciously fitting — it’s a film that genuinely understands that people don’t have to be perfect, or even entirely “likeable”, to be interesting.
There’s a scene where Tony tells Tracy that she “used to” be nice, only after she actually criticizes him as a human being instead of existing as a wet rag as she used to prior to meeting Brooke, and she doesn’t give all that much of a shit. And that’s okay! Gerwig and Baumbach never make excuses for the bad decisions its characters make, but they don’t need to, because they’re human and just trying to find their place in life. In such a way, it works as a perfect companion piece to Frances Ha, but when compared to earlier Baumbach — say, Squid and the Whale that’s very much toxic characters simply existing as toxic characters with hints of judgment from behind the camera — it’s obvious that maturity has set in, as has Gerwig’s role in creating people that feel real rather than purely fictional. To say again that her presence as writer and actress, alongside a terrific performance from Kirke, is exactly what makes a movie so brilliant feels almost lazy, but it’s the truth, and the result is that Mistress America turns out to be exactly the kind of brisk, screwball comedy that we needed this year.
Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach; starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, Heather Lind & Cindy Cheung; 84 minutes.
Mistress America is currently experiencing a limited theatrical release. It opens in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, AMC Aventura and Sunset, Cinepolis Grove, Cinemark Paradise, Gateway 4, and Regal South Beach on September 4th.