“Mistress America,” the new Noah Baumbach farce, is a small gem, a movie so lovingly crafted and cast I’m tempted to pull out the Film Critic’s Big Book of Superlatives to adequately find words to describe it.
Like many of the director’s previous films it’s a New York-centric story, focussing on two characters, aspiring writer and Barnard College freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) and her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brook is a much-needed breath of fresh air in Tracy’s stale college experience. She’s a few years older, has a zest for life Tracy has never experienced before, and, perhaps most importantly, inspires the young writer to do her best work. “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself,” she says, “and that’s why I don’t need therapy.”
Brook’s goal of opening a restaurant looks like it’s about to be sidelined when her rich boyfriend breaks up with her, taking his investment with him. Desperate for cash she convinces Tracy and two friends (Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas-Jones) from school to accompany her as she faces her fears and hits up an ex (Michael Chernus) and his wife (Heather Lind), a woman Brook calls her nemesis, for seed money. Secrets are revealed and lives are changed in a comedy of manners that would make Ernst Lubitsch proud.
At a scant 85 minutes this is a firecracker of a movie. Sharply observed, it’s an arch look at growing up, growing old (Brook feels over-the-hill at age 30) and the pressures that come with the passing of time. “Sometimes I think I’m a genius,” says Tracy’s friend Tony, “and I wish I could just fast-forward to that moment so everyone can see why.” Brook and Tracy speak in a cavalcade of words, volleying ideas and schemes back and worth.
Kirke is a naturalistic anchor for Gerwig’s flights of fancy, but they fit together like puzzle pieces.
The effervescent chemistry between these two is the heart of the film, but as more characters enter and the farce escalates the movie crackles with mad energy. Like early Woody Allen it feels like it’s riding the edge of going off the rails but is kept straight and true by Baumbach‘s rock solid direction.
“American Mistress” is unabashedly smart, funny and joyful. It’s a story that exists in it’s own carefully constructed world but peel back the layers and it has much to say about female mentoring relationships and the responsibilities inherent in those relationships. It’s about friendship, but above all, it’s about entertaining the audience.