0351 | Mistress America

[This review is quite plot-heavy. I wouldn’t describe anything below as a ‘spoiler’, but I thought I’d give fair warning if you’re planning to watch this film.]

Noah Baumbach’s currently working at an admirable speed, and he has made another film that gently mocks the can-do enthusiasm of young New Yorkers, though on balance this year’s While We’re Young felt like a more sustained and less sympathetic attack on youthful hipsterdom and entitlement. Mistress America is co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, their second screenplay collaboration to date, and one that aims to repeat the earlier success they had with the excellent Frances Ha. Gerwig also co-stars as the flaky-but-supremely-confident Brooke, a woman who rips through the city like the Tasmanian Devil, but this isn’t just a case of director and co-writer treading water or making the same film once again: one or two character types may seem vaguely familiar, and there’s no sign of Baumbach’s interest in those approaching turning points in their lives waning, but this is a deftly-executed droll comedy in its own right and there’s a neat switch from screwball to farce after the second act.

The focus is partly on Brooke but mainly on her stepsister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke, who you may recognise from Gone Girl, in which coincidentally she played a character named Greta). Tracy is a college freshman and budding writer, intelligent but reserved and struggling to adapt to life in the big city. She seems to meet a kindred spirit in Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow writer who shares Tracy’s dream of getting accepted into a pompous literary society, members of which look down on everyone else with stony faces (it’s a witty spin on the whole fraternity / sorority pledging thing, and never overplayed). Tony, however, starts dating the understandably suspicious Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones); Tracy feels even lonelier than before, and arranges to meet Brooke for the first time, for company.

Gerwig and Kirke are such fun to watch during the following twenty or thirty minutes. Brooke lives in a cool-looking apartment and does (generally) cool-looking things: she sings with an indie band, sometimes works as an interior designer, teaches a gym class and even provides SAT tuition for kids, despite the fact she doesn’t seem particularly bright (at least not next to Tracy) and briefly mentions that her own scores were so low she couldn’t get into college. She is also intending to open a restaurant that doubles as a hair salon (and, er, community hang-out space), and has even secured financial backing for the mistress-americaventure, though it appears to hinge on the involvement of her boyfriend (who is never seen). Brooke appropriates smart things that Tracy says and breaks them down for Twitter, gets into an argument with a former classmate and gets locked out of her apartment; all the while Tracy is watching, making written and mental notes, with the intention of writing a story featuring a character transparently based on Brooke. Brooke is very interesting for a number of reasons, but with a series of non-careers on-the-go and an enthusiasm for projects that are never seen through (there’s a sub-plot about t-shirts she co-designed that her friend sells to J. Crew behind Brooke’s back) she’s also a car crash waiting to happen; her online profile is carefully-managed and yet there’s a falseness to it all (both women have essentially arrived in the city with the attitude that they can be anything and anyone, but with a twelve year age gap Brooke has had the headstart). Kirke plays Tracy so that she appears both fascinated by her new sister-to-be but also ghoulishly watching, and waiting, with her ulterior motive kept secret. Whether Gerwig and Baumbach are having a laugh at their own expense as writers here is anyone’s guess, but there is more than a whiff of self-depracation around their work together to date.

Nothing ever comes of it, but we occasionally see Tracy steal small objects, in keeping with the theme of her appropriating the lives of others. One of these is from Brooke’s apartment, and the other item comes from the big, suburban house belonging to Dylan (Michael Chernus) and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind); the former was Brooke’s fiancé, the latter was once her best friend until she stole the t-shirt idea and a pair of cats. The action shifts to this sleek, modernist grand design as Brooke pays a visit to seek further funding for her restaurant. Tracy, Tony and mistress_america_7_0Nicolette are in tow as well, and the whole sequence provides a nice contrast with the city-set material. Also in the house, quite randomly, are pregnant Karen (Cindy Cheung) and grumpy neighbour Harold (musician Dean Wareham, who also provides the soundtrack with bandmate and wife Britta Phillips), and this is where the film detours (quite successfully, I think) into farce. And thus the characters argue, bump into one another on stairs and in corridors and walk in on things they’re not supposed to be walking in on, all carried out at breakneck speed while the plot nears a full stop. The highlight here is probably Brooke’s embarrassing pitch to multi-millionaire Dylan, which even includes a cringeworthy mimed rewind. It’s also a sad scene, as it reveals that she’ll probably never get the restaurant off the ground, as she simply lacks the business acumen and can’t even describe what kind of restaurant she actually wants (interestingly it sounds more like a surrogate home environment than an eatery, smartly linked to Brooke’s own background and the off-screen relationship taking place between her religious father and Tracy’s agnostic mother).

There’s a lot of verbal back-and-forth during the film, and not all of it succeeds, but when it does Mistress America is quite funny (in the usual Baumbach semi-muttered chuckle kind of way, rather than the kind of material that elicits out-and-out guffaws). The comic performances are excellent across the board, with the love triangle that develops between Tracy, Tony and Nicolette providing an unexpected highlight: I’d like to see more of Shear in particular, who gets the smart-arse student down pat and has excellent timing. At the centre of it all, both Gerwig and Kirke shine, and their scenes together (particularly in the screwball first half of the film) rattle along featuring the kind of repartee you’d usually expect to see from a long-established double act. They have chemistry in this platonic love story, while Gerwig in particular deserves a further mention for imbuing an essentially unlikable character with likability, ensuring that you’re actually rooting for Brooke by the end and wholly forgiving all of the pronounced, screwy behaviour. I could just as easily have watched an entire movie that only featured the two of them in New York, even though Mistress America ultimately falls short of the standard set by Frances Ha. Baumbach and Gerwig end with a scene that can easily be perceived as a dig at Los Angeles (or Hollywood in particular), and maybe (maybe) it betrays a certain smug, east coast loftiness from the newly-crowned King and Queen of Generation Flat White, but I can certainly forgive them while they’re making films about New York millennials as witty and breezy as this one.

And wow. I got to the end without once mentioning Woody A…

Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung.
Cinematography: Sam Levy.
Editing: Jennifer Lame.
Music: Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Year: 2015.

Comments 19

  1. Ewan M August 20, 2015

    Unsurprisingly we seem to be reviewing a lot of the same films (mine publishes tomorrow I think), but yes I liked Mistress America too, and I appreciate the point you make about Tracy appropriating objects, which does seem to fit with her attitude to writing. The film felt like a bunch of good sequences each with their own different comedic interplay, stitched together into a patchwork, but luckily it all worked quite well.

    • Stu August 21, 2015

      Yeah I’m trying to fit as much in while I’m off work and able to go into London. Sadly will probably have a job again soon! I thought this was pretty good (and I watched it right after Hard To Be A God, so it was a bit of a relief to say the least) though surprised it has had a couple of five star reviews. A lot of cold, seemingly unsympathetic characters for a comedy, though – Marie-Claire, Nicolette (though I can see why she’s so suspicious), Brooke’s father, Marie-Claire’s neighbour, the literary society people, the family living underneath Brooke’s apartment…

  2. Todd Benefiel August 21, 2015

    Woody ‘Arrelson? I have to say you make this sound like quite the fun watch, and I’m ever so tempted to give it a look, but I have to admit, Noah Baumbach’s films drive me up a freaking wall. The last one of his I watched, if I’d had a brick in my hand, I would’ve been out one television screen. Again, as in the past, I think I might be better off enjoying your review than watching the actual film.

    • Stu August 21, 2015

      Thanks very much Todd. Maybe this one isn’t for you. And incidentally, I like the idea of watching films with bricks at the ready. Didn’t Elvis used to watch a bank of TVs with a loaded shotgun by his side, and shoot at anything that displeased him (Communists, Longhairs, health food adverts)? Or is that, as I suspect, an urban myth?

  3. mettelray August 24, 2015

    Definitely interested because I really enjoyed Frances Ha and well, I’m on a indie high right now and it seems to be just the right amount of everything I’m looking for in a movie.

    • Stu August 30, 2015

      Sorry about the delayed response…I’m currently on holiday! It sounds like this will tick a few boxes for you and I would definitely recommend it. Cheers!

  4. ruth August 25, 2015

    I’m not at all familiar w/ Baumbach’s work and I just glance through your review since I want to be as fresh as possible when I see this. Been hearing good things about it, so I’ll definitely give it a shot.

    • Stu August 30, 2015

      Hi Ruth, sorry about the delayed response; I’m on holiday and using the two weeks for a much needed break from WordPress and films more generally! Anyway, it’s definitely worth a shot and if you’re interested in Baumbach I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen of his to date, particularly the last three movies.

  5. Tom September 8, 2015

    Very nice insight Stu. I’m wondering where Mistress American will land on my Tolerance-for-Baumbachian-Characters spectrum. Frances Ha was a 9/10 for me, loved that thing. Then I went to see While We’re Young and practically hated it. It just didn’t work for me. I need to go back and check out The Squid and the Whale, because I’ve heard if there’s a Baumbach movie that’s difficult to watch based on unlikable people, it’s that one. 🙂

    • Stu September 9, 2015

      Haha – the Tolerance-for-Baumbachian-Characters may well veer between different readings for this one. I generally liked the characters myself but definitely warmed more to Gerwig’s as the film went on (her faults are pretty much front and centre for the first fifty minutes).

      • Tom September 10, 2015

        I’ll keep that in mind in case that movie gets near where I live. I always find something to like in his movies but there’s always far more stuff that I’m put off by. With Frances Ha being the major exception.

        • Stu September 10, 2015

          This is one that’d definitely work on the small screen if you have to wait; quite short too – less then 90 minutes.

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