Ambition and authenticity can be at great odds with one another, especially as one tries to find their identity in the disorienting velocity and volume of New York. In Noah Baumbach’s latest effort, the dizzying screwball farce “Mistress America,” these disparate intentions collide with emotional force. A distant cousin of “Frances Ha,” also co-written by Baumbach and co-star Greta Gerwig, “Mistress America” may also have a female protagonist as its focal point, but ultimately it’s a picture with different concerns, certainly delivered in a vastly dissimilar form. Nevertheless, Baumbach’s breezy hot streak continues with another contemporary classic New York tale.
Doing his best Peter Bogdanovich impression, filtered through John Hughes and ‘80s touchstones like the wackier elements of “Something Wild,” Baumbach’s latest is like a millennial riff on “His Girl Friday,” with a rapid-fire delivery, minus the traditional romance. However, ‘America’ certainly has its own levels of infatuation and inamorata.
A luminous Lola Kirke stars as Tracy, an uncool, unassuming, and seemingly unremarkable 18-year-old college freshman having trouble adjusting to life at Colombia. Unpopular and alienated from most of her peers, an acute loneliness sets in as she tries to navigate the fast pace of Manhattan life. At her mother’s behest, she calls the nearly 30-year-old Brooke (Gerwig), who is going to be her new sister (Tracy’s mom is about to marry Brooke’s dad). Dynamic, successful, and full of restless, self-absorbed energy, Brooke enters Tracy’s dull life like a whirlwind, enamoring the young girl, demonstrating the possibilities of an exciting New York life, and affording her the first taste of sanguinity since moving for school.
Inspired, Tracy’s writing is switched-on and her other tenuous friends, seemingly just as marginally talented as she first appeared, become disarmed by her sudden vitality. Meanwhile, she becomes bestie/personal assistant to Brooke and is happy to just be in her relentlessly infectious presence. But as Brooke tries to mount her next enterprise as a restaurateur, serious setbacks and hardships begin to tear the bloom off the rose of Tracy’s blind adulation. As Brooke’s rampant narcissism finally begins to reveal itself to Tracy, the college student’s prose begins to borrow heavily from her mentor’s real life, including what feels like severe commentary on the inevitability of her failures. An ugly confrontation soon arises.
Super rich, funny, and layered, “Mistress America” — the name of the short story Tracy writes based on Brooke’s life — is a hyperactive gem. Baumbach’s movie has a lot on its mind, from the idea of a sisterly/female friendship love story that has its own painful breakup, to the consideration of the vampiric qualities of some authors bleeding friends and family for inspiration. The movie also plays with the unscrupulous thought of abandoning friendships once their usefulness has been outgrown.
The dynamics of protégés and mentors, and the betrayal of such trusts, are certainly on the minds of those living in the Baumbach/Gerwig household (the collaborators are also partners). Baumbach explores similar territory in his upcoming picture, “While We’re Young,” which focuses on a struggling documentarian and the opportunistic millennial artist that reinvigorates his mojo (read our review). So, while this may feel like familiar territory, it must be said that both pictures are wildly different in form and tone. We’ve never seen Baumbach take on such zany speed before.
Delightful and giddy, “Mistress America” features two knock out performances. Lola Kirke has a lot of raw talent (check “Gone Girl” and Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” for further evidence), and Gerwig certainly is tremendous in this immense, outsized persona. We’ve certainly never seen the ultra-hyper and confident side of her before. There’s a deep well of talent in the supporting cast, too, with relative unknowns Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Cindy Cheung, and character actor Michael Chernus all giving as good as they can get in the lock-step haste of Baumbach’s frantic humor and hilariously awkward situations.
Influenced by ‘80s coming of age movies, “Mistress America” also boasts a sublimely gauzy and pulsing synthesizer score by ex-Luna members Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (they provided some music for “The Squid In The Whale,” and Wareham’s cameo is almost as funny as his brief turn in “While We’re Young”).
Another fantastic and funny home run (or at least a triple) for the richly considered Baumbach and Gerwig, full of observations about the intricacies of female life, “Mistress America” is at times uproariously funny and is eminently quotable (there’s a not-too-distant universe out there where college kids, cinephiles, and film critics are liberally spouting bon mots from the movie). If there’s one big issue, the comedy’s 84-minute length and shaky one-note last act suggest an idea stretched to its limits. As it gears down for the finale, it becomes a little inconsistent, and overall, the over-caffeinated qualities may chafe less forgiving audiences.
Still, Baumbach’s sharp examinations of the limitations of the callow arrogance of youth and the fatuous nature of egocentricity are pointed and riotously enjoyable. As another quick project shot somewhere in the off-hours of the indie “Frances Ha,” and perhaps more mainstream-appealing “While We’re Young,” most filmmakers would only dream of creating a side piece this charming. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.