Wittily written, sparklingly performed and dazzlingly directed, “Mistress America” quickly makes for itself a strong case as Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date.If not, the movie is at least every bit as wonderful as “The Squid and the Whale,” though its tone more closely resembles an effortlessly madcap screwball comedy by Ernst Lubitsch or Gregory LaCava or Howard Hawks or George Cukor or Preston Sturges. “Mistress America” is the second writing collaboration between Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and like “Frances Ha,” the movie blossoms under the influence and presence of the warm and winning star.Gerwig plays Brooke, a brilliant dreamer who juggles gigs as a spin class instructor and bottom-rung interior designer with plans to open a Williamsburg restaurant where the home-style cooking will be served on deliberately mismatched china. Brooke lives in an expansive exposed brick loft – not zoned residential and reachable only by fire escape and unlocked window.
The boyfriend to whom the space apparently belongs is absent. All of Brooke’s traits, and her cascade of blurted, hysterical non-sequiturs, cast a spell on Tracy (a smashing Lola Kirke), a Barnard first year and aspiring writer whose mother is engaged to marry Brooke’s father.
For the sake of future family harmony, the sisters-to-be decide to hang out, and Tracy’s trepidations evaporate in the presence of the energetic and uninhibited “adult.” Baumbach has always been a shrewd observer of human nature and desire at multiple ages, and one of the supreme pleasures of “Mistress America” is watching Tracy watch Brooke.
Scott Foundas writes, “Like one of his own filmmaking idols, Eric Rohmer, [Baumbach] seems to have remained very much an adolescent at heart, and he’s one of the few American filmmakers to embrace young people in all of their amorphous identity, occasional callowness and naive optimism…” Though Brooke and Tracy are not all that far apart in age, Baumbach and Gerwig fully grasp the world of difference between them.
Without implying any disrespect to “Frances Ha,” a Sundance programmer identified “Mistress America” in his introduction to the film as a significant leap forward for Gerwig and Baumbach. The comment might have applied to a kind of collaborative confidence emerging from the pair’s onscreen and offscreen relationships, but it could just as easily footnote the filmmaker’s embrace of élan over introspection, brio over self-loathing, and joie de vivre over grim resignation.
Those latter markers of melancholia describe aspects of “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg,” and are to Baumbach equally worthwhile sources of humor.
Fleet and nimble, “Mistress America,” like all great movies, leaves you wanting more and imagining additional experiences for characters you feel you got to know intimately in less than 90 minutes. There is much to recommend here: the John Hughes-esque application of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ fantastic synth pop score; the incisive way Baumbach explores the boundaries between life and art (Tracy’s unauthorized use of Brooke as the basis for a short story character provides enough material for a movie of its own); and the breathless, astonishingly staged and realized set-piece that finds an odd assortment of unlikely guests committing to farce at a Connecticut home. However, the greatest joys of “Mistress America” can be found in the warmth of the relationship between Tracy and Brooke.
“Mistress America” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically later in 2015.
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