Review: 'Mistress America' Proves That Greta Gerwig Brings Out the Best in Noah Baumbach

This screwball buddy comedy centered around a complicated female friendship is a must-see.

Not Available Lead
Image via Complex Original
Not Available Lead

Mistress America

0 4 out of 5 stars
Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig , Lola Kirke , Matthew Shear
Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Duration: 84 min.
Release Date:
August 14, 2015
MPAA Rating:

Mistress America may look like a Frances Ha sequel on the surface: It's more Noah Baumbach-Greta Gerwig fare, starring the latter as a girl about town in New York City. Except the Mistress America version of Gerwig, Brooke, is older, more confident and posh, and definitely way more of an asshole (a loveable one, but still). She lives in Times Square, which is both terribly uncool and so quintessentially New York to the point of parody. She's kind of good at everything, but at 30 years old, she's been unable to make a stable career out of any of her interests. Her resistance to growing up is only excusable because of her charisma; she's the kind of girl who could talk her way into, or out of, anything. She's both impossibly cool and also just impossible. Most of all, you so desperately want her to like you. 

View this video on YouTube

Brooke is an irrational woman (not in the same vein as the insufferable Irrational Man), but her manic... pixie...—I'm sorry—dreaminess is seen through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), who forms a girl-crush on her. Tracy, bright-eyed and 18, is just starting college at Barnard, and she's new to the metropolitan lifestyle. Her world would have never collided with Brooke's if it weren't for her mom getting married to Brooke's father. Bonded by soon-to-be familial grounds, Brooke takes Tracy under her wing, perhaps out of an older sister instinct, but definitely also, in part, because she can't resist having a devotee.

Baumbach, as evidenced by his film from earlier this year, While We're Young, has a gift for satirizing hip, young folk. While We're Young is mediocre Baumbach with a messy resolution, but its best part is the hilarious montage that comes in halfway through the film, contrasting the lives of the film's younger couple, the vintage-obsessed hipster New Yorkers played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried versus the lives of the middle-aged couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Likewise, Mistress America's comedy is driven by the caricature that is Brooke, right from the get-go: She enters the film descending the famous red stairs of Times Square like a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, except with an unrefined touch that makes the scene more funny than glamorous. The introduction is fitting for the over-the-top Brooke, a character who inspires both admiration and sympathy. Much of the admiration comes from Tracy, who not only idolizes Brooke, but even turns her into a literary muse for her short story called Mistress America

Tracy—though much younger in age, and painted with a teenage naiveté—is arguably wiser than her older sister counterpart, and much more sensible, but she can't help but look to Brooke to show her a whole new world. When their lives intersect, Mistress America becomes an entertaining screwball buddy comedy led by two strong-minded women with wildly different personalities. The comedic timing is also gold. Gerwig is a master at delivering lines with an awkwardly whimsical inflection, and the screenplay, co-written by her and her real-life romantic partner Baumbach, showcases her gift at dialogue. Though Gerwig previously starred in Baumbach's Greenberg (possibly the worst of Baumbach), this is her second Baumbach film, after Frances Ha, in which she's had creative reign. Frances and Mistress are—perhaps not so coincidentally—the two best works in the Baumbach canon, thanks to the shining beacon of light brought on by Gerwig's comedic sensibilities and delivery. 

Pair her contribution with Baumbach's directorial style of cutting shots like a ping-pong match, and the film becomes oddball hilarity. Brooke's awkward encounter with an old schoolmate at a bar is the best example of this approach—with quick-paced, close-up shots of characters saying inane things back and forth—which may bring to mind methods of off-kilter French cinema. If you happened to have seen this foreign sleeper this year, then it may even bring to mind the up-close and personal farcicality of La Sapienza by Eugène​ Green, whose directorial choices often emulate a stage play.

Mistress America, too, ends up feeling like a stage play when Brooke and Tracy drive up to Vermont with an unlikely crew (that includes a boy Tracy liked at school, along with his begrudging girlfriend) in order for Brooke to ask her ex-fiancé and his wife Mimi Claire (who happens to be Brooke's ex-best friend) to invest in her new restaurant—an idea birthed from Brooke's many pursuits. Right?—it all sounds ridiculous. But because these shenanigans are so outlandish, this final act also unexpectedly becomes the best part of the film. Everything is put out on the table, often unraveled through neurotic screaming and droll one-liners. It's messy and fun, and while no one may be actually laughing out loud, it's the kind of humor that's chuckle-inducing.

This is Baumbach on a new level, thanks to Gerwig—bless this woman—who keeps her comedic charm throughout even the strangest territories. Despite Brooke's manic nature, she's not the typical dream girl, the kind whose sole purpose is to better a male character, or to help him come to some sort of epiphany at the end. Male characters more or less just exist in the world of Mistress America; though Brooke is briefly seen with some no-name arm candy at the club, or Tracy briefly seen flirting with the aforementioned boy at school, the heart—and complications—of the film lies in the two female leads. There are undertones of a rom-com here, but it's not really a rosy, romantic picture. Mistress America is not a perfect picture of friendship or sisterhood—it's not even a good one, really—but it's a look at two women bonded at unexpected crossroads, with some fiercely farcical comedy giving it a boost.

Latest in Pop Culture