There are two movies in Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, Mistress America, and the REAL movie is only revealed with a stomach-churning tonal shift in the last 7 minutes. This not-quite reveal so completely changes the movie that came before it, that Mistress America necessitates having both a regular unspoiled review and one that fully discusses the movie. This is the unspoiled review. The spoiled review can be found here.
How do writers create? Do they observe the world around them, writing about the people they know? How do they create scenarios from their experiences. These well-worn questions form the center of Noah Baumbach’s latest feature, Mistress America. Baumbach and second time co-writer Greta Gerwig find themselves exploring the essence of creation through the eyes of young college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke).
Just as Tracy starts her life at Barnard College in New York City, her mother tells Tracy that she’s going to be getting married. The best part is that her mother’s new beau has a daughter, Brooke, who also lives in New York City. After being rejected by an elite literary magazine, Tracy sets out to meet Brooke and discover herself and the city.
While Tracy is a sullen, serious girl just discovering life, Brooke is an experienced energetic woman fighting to survive in New York City. Played by Greta Gerwig, Brooke is a whirlwind of extroverted energy flipping from scheme to scheme to try to survive in the Big Apple. She’s a socialite who simply knows everybody and makes every social connection count to keep herself in the current of the hip and powerful. Where Tracy is far more introverted and stuck in her own head, Brooke wears everything on her sleeve, and their differences create a perfect dichotomy at the center of the movie.
Baumbach makes no effort to mask Tracy as a typical audience surrogate while Brooke is the true subject of the film. Baumbach is so fascinated with Brooke and Gerwig that he can’t help but make everything center around that character. Tracy uses their friendship to create a barely-veiled short story titled Mistress America that criticizes Brooke as we’re watching their relationship grow. Is Tracy truly in it for a true relationship, or is she leeching off Brooke’s fabulous life to mine it for her own gain? Is she just using Brooke?
These questions bubble up as Baumbach and Gerwig send Brooke and Tracy off on a roadtrip to find a lengthy screwball centerpiece straight out of the 1940s. Baumbach constantly amps up the pacing to pull off a 30-minute multi-story piece of comedic insanity. Reminiscent of the snappy one-two banter of His Girl Friday, Baumbach keeps the audience on their toes as he drives everybody to their inevitable destination.
Almost up to the last minute, this is nearly a perfect movie. Up until the third-act destination, the camerawork is still relatively second-rate Woody Allen (as Frances Ha made abundantly clear, Baumbach is no visual master), but Baumbach finally has control over his tone and characters, and shows a real world understanding of everybody’s position in the world. Gerwig is a force of nature, and Kirke plays stunningly in Gerwig’s negative spaces, creating a yin-yang of truth and hilarity.