Review: MISTRESS AMERICA Resurrects The Screwball Comedy

The movie Mistress America, like its character Brooke, walks a fine line between charming and grating. Director Noah Baumbach’s usual acidic wit is on full display here but it’s tempered by the sentimentality that frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote with Baumbach) provides.

The balance is hard to perfect (though the two arguably achieved it with the fine Frances Ha), but Mistress America still provides an equally funny and caustic look into Millenial ennui.

The twist here is that thoroughly contemporary references and cringe comedy are combined with elements of a full-fledged screwball comedy – complete with characters talking over one another, sliding doors and even pratfalls. It sounds like a difficult feat to achieve, but Baumbach may be one of the most talented directors working today. His earlier features (like The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg) are deeply cynical and darkly comedic, but ring true with sincerity thanks to a specificity of time and place.

When Baumbach co-wrote Frances Ha with Gerwig in 2012 it seemed like lightning had struck. His follow-up feature While We’re Young threatened to undo some of that heart that had seeped in and sometimes felt like a old Gen X-er shaking his fist at the generation after. Mistress America (which, like Frances Ha, also stars and is co-written by Gerwig) restores balance to the fickle scales to find Baumbach again doing some of his best work with the help of writing (and real-life) partner Gerwig.

Lola Kirke (previously best known as one of the rednecks in Gone Girl) stars as Tracy, an aspiring writer and college freshman who’s moved to New York City. She’s self conscious and somewhat shy, finding the city to be out of sync with her preconceptions and failing to make connections. Enter Brooke (Gerwig) – her soon-to-be stepsister (their parents are marrying) who’s been in the city for years. Brooke’s in her early 30s (late 20s? Both the movie and the character play coy) and is everything Tracy wants to be – self-assured, adventurous and up for anything.

After a whirlwind night together in the city – seeing bands, meeting dudes, dancing, doing shots – they immediately bond and Tracy is drawn into Brooke’s hyperactive vortex. As Brooke prattles on endlessly about business plans (including a restaurant/hair salon, an unwritten screenplay that gives the movie its title and more) Tracy comes to realize that Brooke’s bravado may hide deeper insecurities, but her endlessly quotable sayings (“I didn’t go to college, I’m an autodidact – that’s a word I taught myself”) and vivacious life will serve as great fodder for Tracy’s writing.

So it’s a bit of a vampiric relationship, with Brooke happy to act as potential mentor and cool older sister to the impressionable Tracy, who for her part starts developing more of a personality even if it’s not entirely her own. Fissures start to appear in their budding friendship as initial posturing gives way to deeper truths, and it becomes unclear if what they’re experiencing is the first flush of a lifelong friendship or a torrid but short term flash in the pan.

The dialogue is crackling and the New York of Mistress America is romantic and vibrant, especially as the movie takes place over a long autumn. While there are some backgrounded male characters (Tracy pines after her close friend and Brooke has a brief dalliance with a bass player while her boyfriend is overseas), the movie, like Frances Ha, is on its surface about female friendship but also how people grow together and apart, pulled along by complex inner lives that are difficult to articulate.

The central set piece takes place at the Connecticut mansion of Brooke’s former friend Mamie-Claire, who’s now married to Brooke’s ex-fiancé Dylan after having supposedly stolen both him and a lucrative business deal away from the bootstrapping Brooke. Of course the situation isn’t that black-and-white, and what follows is a frenetic 30 minutes of pure screwball comedy that’s executed with considerable precision and panache, despite devolving at times into a shoutfest (Gerwig’s natural charisma and the likeability of all the actors helps temper the chaos).

The change in tones is a little jarring as the movie both before and after Connecticut is more naturalistic, but if you can lock into its peculiar rhythms then Mistress America has some affecting (and hilarious) moments. The fantastic soundtrack (by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, with the former appearing onscreen as a droll neighbour) is full of synth-y goodness and helps to provide some continuity between the different sections of the film. It’s a strange melange as the teens feel straight out of a John Hughes 80’s movie due to their believability and sincerity, the screwball comedy is a throwback to the genre’s heyday in the 50’s, while the soundtrack bridges the 80’s to now, with some fitting but eclectic tracks (from Paul McCartney and Hot Chocolate).

It doesn’t sound like those elements might work together and the movie is certainly in a heightened reality at times, but it mostly sings with fast talking jibes, winning performances and clever comedy that masks a wounded soul. The bittersweet ending (which to me most recalls and reaches a crescendo similar to The Squid and the Whale) is nearly perfect and will certainly speak to a contingent of the audience who find themselves at an age similar to either Brooke and Tracy, as well as hopefully everyone else.

With a grace note like that it’s hard to find fault elsewhere, and Mistress America further proves that Greta Gerwig is an exciting screen presence while strengthening the notion that she sands off some of the harsher edges of Noah Baumbach, one of the preeminent film crank geniuses who might just be the heir apparent to Woody Allen. Scratch that, they might be the heirs apparent to Woody Allen.

Mistress America (2015)

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Runtime: 84 minutes

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