This review of Mistress America contains spoilers and is considered complimentary to the unspoiled review found here. Please consider reading that review first.
In last year’s Birdman, one of the many unnecessary conflicts was between Michael Keaton’s hacky Hollywood actor and an irascible Broadway critic. Seemingly a centerpiece of the movie, the crusty critic vows to shut down Keaton’s play with the stroke of her pen becoming a villain who is set to justify her position through sheer petty vindication. In a bar confrontation, before the preview performances have even started, the critic already has the review written in her head about how to destroy Keaton and send him back to Hollywood with his tail between his legs. This irritatingly childish subplot seems to be director Innaritu taking aim at the critics of his last feature Biutiful. With Mistress America, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have made a feature length origin story about that crusty critic as a response to anybody who dared to, you know, criticize Frances Ha.
Brooke (Gerwig) is the living breathing heart of Mistress America, a flibbertigibbet in the vein of Rosilind Russell and Judy Holliday. She is the embodiment of New York City (or at least she wants to be), being what one might consider a socialite. She’s a social butterfly who flitters around, knowing all the right people to know and having sparks of brilliant ideas. Her biggest idea was stolen by her former best friend, who also stole her boyfriend in the process, but don’t worry because she has another one at the ready.
If Brooke is the heart of Mistress America, then Tracy (Lola Kirke) is the head. Starting her freshman year at Barnard College, Tracy is a youthful idealist who doesn’t have the life experience to have a voice, or even a vision. Her first story is rejected by an elite literary magazine, and she strings along a boy she has no interest in. After meeting her soon-to-be stepsister (early on, her mother informs Tracy of her new beau and impending marriage), Tracy finds Brooke to be a fascinating, if slightly contemptible, creature, making her the subject of her new, scathing, story Mistress America.
Even though Tracy opens and closes the movie and is ostensibly the primary character, it’s not her movie. Tracy is merely around to observe and write about Brooke in a critical light. After Tracy and Brooke go through a glorious screwball centerpiece, Baumbach pulls the rug out from under the audience. Through circumstances, Brooke reads a copy of Mistress America, and suddenly Tracy becomes the villain through her harsh but mostly honest criticisms of Brooke’s life.
Throughout the film, Baumbach offers up snippets from Mistress America, but never the full text. The snippets largely consist of Tracy’s critiques of Brooke, and her moderately keen observations of Brooke’s life. As the movie continues, Baumbach gives shorter and shorter snippets. By the end of the movie, each descriptive in the story sounds like they have been lifted verbatim from critical reviews of Frances Ha. Though Brooke and Frances are somewhat different constructions, the criticisms within the story fit both characters.
By the final reveal, Baumbach makes it clear that he doesn’t particularly like Tracy, and he thinks she’s kind of a bitch. In this last twist, the laughs stop, and Baumbach turns on Tracy, giving her the full brunt of criticism in a dour, bitter and immature double barrel shotgun blast. He assassinates her character, shatters her life, and dissolves Brooke and Tracy’s relationship in a few quick minutes. Suddenly, the audience surrogate is being judged because Baumbach has a beef with his critics who think he should judge his characters.
The problem is, Tracy was right. Constantly. Even though Baumbach expects us to judge Tracy for being a complete and utter critic (and, thus, a bitch), everything she said about Brooke (and possibly Frances) was true. The overall point of Mistress America is that people shouldn’t judge anything because nobody’s perfect. Baumbach and Gerwig both hate that people who aren’t perfect can be critical of other people’s flaws. By making Mistress America, they become no better than Candace Sams, the author who reported negative reviewers on Amazon to the FBI. The biggest problem: up until the grade school finale of “ha ha, you were enjoying this but the joke’s on you,” Mistress America is Baumbach’s best movie to date without an ounce of his usual insufferability.