"Mistress America" is sharp social commentary disguised as a fun indie screwball
While writer-director Noah Baumbach has time and time again proven himself to be an adept storyteller, it can be easy to dismiss many of his directorial efforts as stories about White People Problems.
Take, for example, The Squid And the Whale - the film that earned Baumbach an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Starring Jeff Daniels as a self-absorbed and bitter writer, Squid tells the story of a white middle class family in the midst of a divorce. Two years later, Baumbach’s followed-up with Margot at the Wedding, which stars Nicole Kidman as Margot, a self-absorbed, bitter writer, who decides to attend said wedding. Both films (along with few notable others on Baumbach’s IMDB page) follow Baumbach’s well-established formula of featuring cynical, self-centered, and pseudo-intellectual characters at the center, most of whom, despite their privilege and upper-middle class background, seem to struggle with arrested development and perpetual ennui.
In Greenberg, frequent collaborator Ben Stiller (some might say he’s the Bill Murray to Baumbach’s Wes Anderson) plays the titular character, who spends the majority of the movie lounging around a nice hillside house “just trying to do nothing”. It’s about as First World as the Problem gets.
But to paint Baumbach’s films with such a broad brush is to miss the elegantly embedded social commentary and nuanced character studies that make his films such compelling viewing. Though successful in varying degrees, Baumbach consistently aims to pack layers of profundity underneath the Trojan horse of the relatively inconsequential “first world” problems. The characters that grapple with these problems in his films tend to tow between the line of being inexplicably vicious and engagingly relatable, with most of his pre-Frances Ha characters leaning more towards the former. A contemporary iteration of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Frances Ha marked the first written collaboration between Baumbach and creative (plus romantic) partner, indie mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig. It may well be thanks to star Gerwig that Mistress America is his most successful Trojan horse movie yet.
The premise of Mistress America is pretty simple. Tracy, an aspiring writer played by up-and-comer Lola Kirke (Gone Girl; IRL sister of Jemima Kirk from HBO’s Girls), is feeling underwhelmed by her freshman college experience so far. She hasn’t been making any friends, and has just been rejected by a prestigious literary club in her university. So when she takes up on her mother’s suggestion to reach out to her soon-to-be stepsister and New York native, Brooke (Gerwig), she becomes instantly taken. Tracy becomes instantly smitten with Brooke’s free-spirited charm, and gets swept up in her intoxicating way of life as the pair embark on a series of (mis)adventures around New York.
On its surface, the film is essentially a “gal pals hanging out in the city!” story, an indie screwball comedy predicated on mining laughs (or at the very least, chuckles) from the shenanigans that Tracy and Brooke get up to. And boy, does the film deliver on that front. Jam-packed with rapid-fire zingers and cleverly constructed comedic situations, Mistress America is Baumbach’s most deliberately funny screenplay to date (quite possibly due to Gerwig’s involvement). And while the witty dialogue in the script is delightfully realised by the confident performances from its supporting cast, the film lives and dies by the central relationship between its two main leads. Thankfully, Gerwig and Kirke portray this relationship with such gleeful commitment, juggling competently between hilarity and pathos.
In many ways, the story of Mistress America is Baumbach and Gerwig’s low-fi, contemporary deconstruction of the Gatsby archetype. Much like the titular character in F. Scott Fiztgerald’s seminal novel, Brooke exudes an infectious charisma that seems to be both effortlessly organic and deliberately self-made at the same time. This dichotomy is encapsulated by Gerwig’s skilfully subtle performance during Brooke’s off-screen introduction, in which she returns a call from Tracy with a purposefully put-on formal greeting, almost as if she is doing an impression of how she thinks business people speak when they return phone calls.
On the flip side, Tracy – timid, naive and highly suggestible – is the Nick Carraway of this story, as she is (at least, initially) completely entranced by Brooke’s effervescence, and idolizes her for her take-no-prisoners attitude and seemingly exhilarating whirlwind way-of-life. Maybe it’s because of this well-trodden Gatsby-Carraway route the film embarks on, that we think we see where the story is going: Tracy idealizes Brooke’s romantic sense of ambition at first, but gradually becomes disillusioned the more she learns about her. But what is so impressive about Mistress America is that it expertly subverts our preconceived expectations of how Tracy’s disillusionment of Brooke would unfold with a clever twist that turns the tables back on Tracy instead, with contemplation on the ethics of artistic license (which was also a running theme in another Baumbach film that came out earlier this year, While We’re Young).
One of the potential hazards that often (for better or for worse) threaten the audience’s enjoyment of Baumbach’s films is the unrelenting sense of misanthropy that looms large among his characters. It can be argued that Gerwig’s involvement in the film significantly moderates this overt misanthropic tendency, as evident in how the characters in Mistress America remain well rounded and endearing in their narcissism.
There is an exception, however, in the way the film presents the character of Nicollete (Jasmine Cephas Jones), the girlfriend of Tony (Matthew Shear), Tracy’s unwitting love interest. While a bit player that is mostly played for laughs, the film’s depiction of its sole African-american character as a cartoonishly jealous and single-mindedly vindictive caricature is quite jarring when compared to rest of its nuanced cast of female characters. While this can almost be chalked up to the unforeseen consequences of employing a comedic device; it instead comes across as problematic in light of the predominantly white casting in Baumbach’s filmography.
Much like hanging out with Gerwig’s Brooke, Mistress America is delightfully fun and ceaselessly entertaining, and much of the film’s energetic atmosphere can be credited to Jennifer Lame’s (whose past credits include Frances Ha and While We're Young) crafty editing, as well as Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ infectiously catchy soundtrack. Effortless in its charm and laser-sharp in its wit, Mistress America is an uproariously funny screwball that proves to be another ace in the Baumbach-Gerwig creative partnership.