With “Frances Ha,” Noah Baumbach’s directing career entered a new stage emboldened by his work with co-writer and partner Greta Gerwig, though the scrappy nature of that narrative and Gerwig’s vibrant performance led to the impression that it was more her voice than his driving the proceedings. Their second shared writing credit, “Mistress America,” shows the mark of a more integrated collaboration.
As with “Frances Ha,” the movie adopts the tone of a screwball comedy to explore the frustrations and aspirations of young women — one of whom played, once again, by an endearingly wacky Gerwig — but it has a more conventional structure and cynical attitude that synthesizes the two authors’ distinct voices. That’s ultimately a mixed blessing: “Mistress America” may not fully realize the strengths of either Baumbach or Gerwig, but it showcases their talents just enough to deliver on their appeal.
Nevertheless, the driving force of “Mistress America” isn’t either of them. That honor belongs to rising star Lola Kirke (“Mozart in the Jungle”), whose sleepy-eyed, quasi-sarcastic delivery makes for the perfect foil to Gerwig’s ceaseless energy. Kirke plays Tracy, a college freshman at Columbia University struggling to find her place. The city hardly brings her the escapism she desires, and her sole potential romantic suitor (Matthew Shear) has a girlfriend.
Then Tracy learns of her mother’s engagement to a man whose 29-year-old daughter Brooke (Gerwig) decides they should hang. Gerwig bursts into the movie with a typically cartoonish force, dispensing hilariously short-sighted life advice even as it’s clear that she doesn’t have her own momentum off the ground yet. Their night out on the town transcends plot specifics; the two actress’ chemistry is so complimentary that their banter may as well consume the whole movie. “Everything becomes pure want,” Brooke advises Tracey of the young adulthood awaiting her, in one of several one-liners that suggest the older woman projects her own unrealized desires onto her new companion.
As it turns out, Brooke harbors a pipe dream of opening a restaurant in Williamsburg, and schemes to raise money from a wealthy old acquaintance (the reliably goofy Michael Chernus). Despite her confidence, Brooke’s giddy demeanor obscures her numerous setbacks that Tracy only gradually begins to comprehend, from a deadbeat boyfriend to a mean-spirited past. Meanwhile, aspiring writer Tracy secretly uses Brooke as material for a short story, setting the stage for a series of dueling agendas that naturally erupt during the chaotic final act.
When that moment arrives, over the course of several awkwardly funny confrontations at the Chernus’ character’s palatial upstate home, “Mistress America” reaches the apex of its appeal: Most of the narrative revolves around neurotic characters in close proximity batting around zany dialogue that constantly hits its mark. Yet for every goofy aside, Baumbach and Gerwig include perceptive takeaways as the two women attempt to psychoanalyze each other’s flaws. “Your tragedy is your armor,” Tracy tells Brooke, explaining her tendency to dwell on her misfortunes, but of course that line could fit right into any number of projects in Baumbach’s filmography.
But “Mistress America” showcases a more self-satisfied project for the duo, in that it just barely does justice to their talents without forging any fresh ground. For Baumbach, whose last movie “While We’re Young” premiered at a festival just five months before “Mistress America,’ the latest effort suggests he’s entering Woody Allen territory — not always hitting his stride, but usually somewhere in the vicinity of it. The new movie shows what he can do with minimal effort and the ideal collaborators.
For all the energy of Gerwig and Kirke’s shared chemistry and the lively dialogue that compliments it, the story of “Mistress America” never keeps pace, ultimately sagging into formula to the detriment of the potential displayed by its compelling protagonists. Then again, they’re so eager to make something of themselves that the movie’s rather basic trajectory is a nice metaphor for the reality check they both inevitably experience.
“Mistress America” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release it theatrically later this year.