For the second time in 2015, a film written and directed by Noah Baumbach is finding its way into theaters. Following hot on the heels of his Ben Stiller/Naomi Watts generational comedy While We’re Young (which was pretty darned good, even with its inconsistent third act), Mistress America reunites him with his star from Greenberg and Frances Ha (and real life beau) Greta Gerwig (co-writing her as she did on Frances Ha), matching her up against relative newcomer Lola Kirke for a comedy about ego and finding a comrade in the unlikeliest of places.
Tracey (Kirke) is a freshman at Barnard College in New York, struggling with social anxiety and finding a foothold in the city. Her mother recommends she get in contact with Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be-sister upon the marriage of their parents this coming Thanksgiving. Brooks is loving and gregarious to this relative stranger, with an incredibly magnetic and outsized bohemian personality. She flits through the city streets, filling Tracey’s head with all these crazy ideas about youth and freedom and opening a restaurant/salon/art studio with her Greek boyfriend Stavros. She is also remarkably self-absorbed, bulldozing her way through everyone who tries to take the spotlight off her. After a whirlwind night about town, Tracey sees an opportunity in this new relationship, injecting a version of Brooke into a short story she is writing to attempt to join Barnard’s exclusive literary society. Things take a turn when Stavros pulls out of their restaurant plans, causing Brooke’s precisely calibrated to show signs of crumbling.
There is quite a bit of overlap between Brooke and Gerwig’s previous Baumbach role in Frances Ha: they both live in New York, despite not seeming to have any sort of job to support themselves, and both have a lazy, freewheeling approach to life. Brooke his much more set in her ways than Frances (this is not a story of self-discovery, not for Brooke anyway), and by extension she is considerably more brusque and callous in her interactions with others. She sees herself as a modern day poet philosopher, and is the sort of person who would make sure everyone around her knew that. Tracey could not be less like her. She doesn’t get invited to parties in her own dorm, hates calling people she doesn’t know, and the only guy she likes shows up one day with a deeply suspicious new girlfriend. Herein lies the tension, as Tracey is the perfect sort of person to notice Brooke’s bullying behavior, and just the sort of person to do nothing about it.
Noah Baumbach has always been a comedic writer, but the overtness of the humor seems to be building over the course of his last few films. This is not to say that The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg or Margot at the Wedding were not funny, because they were, but dating back to Kicking and Screaming, he always cut his humor with a harder edge. His characters were not nice people, and they did unkind things that made the laughs catch in the throat. WIth Frances Ha, the edge softened, and While We’re Young felt almost entirely free of that undercurrent of smugness. It was there in some ways, but not nearly as confrontational. Mistress America strikes a nice balance between the broader jokiness of While We’re Young and the brutality of The Squid and the Whale; Brooke seems like the sort of character who would belong in the latter, but the overall tone is akin to the former. Baumbach even amps up the screwball aspects of the comedy more so than what was seen in While We’re Young. This could very well be Baumbach’s funniest film.
And the best indication of that comes when Mistress America culminates with a masterful farce as Brooke, Tracey, her friend and his girlfriend pile in a car and travel to the suburbs to confront/ask for money from her old flame Dylan (Michael Chernus) and Mimi-Claire (Heather Lind, stealing every moment she is on screen), the woman who stole Brooke’s one successful business idea, her boyfriend and her cats. What unfolds is an intricate, hilarious and deliriously paced sequence that represents the best comedy can offer. Baumbach makes excellent use of the space of his cavernous house, layering arguments and cross talk throughout the overlapping rooms of its open layout. As more characters are pulled into the wake of the conflict, things get crazier and move faster, but Baumbach never loses sight of the purpose of it all. For a series of scenes as silly and madcap as they are, they are remarkably trenchant to the central plot and the arcs of Brooke and Tracey. Reading over one’s shoulder has never been funnier.
The lighter side of Noah Baumbach has paid dividends. There is time enough for the The Squid and the Whales and the Margot at the Weddings of the world, but the levity that has come from his collaborations with Greta Gerwig has made for a refreshing tonic. Frances Ha was one of the better releases of its year, but it feels like Mistress America is an even more fruitful product of the pair, the par excellence of what a Noah Baumbach movie could and should be. It has that deliciously old school flair, that Woody Allen New York seen through (in this case, at least) a less solipsistic eye. One would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying comedy released this year.