There’s a nice little touch during Mistress America’s opening credit sequence, in which a character stands in a backlit doorway and flips a light switch to make the room go dark. A split second later, the film’s neon title flickers on in the black portion of the screen. For the most part, the rest of the movie displays the same witty sense of timing; the jokes are as funny for their content as for the exact moment they arrive.
This is the second film, after Frances Ha, born of close collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (he directs from a script they wrote together). It’s a broader comedy, with an ensemble structure, but the two pictures share one important thing in common: they liberate Baumbach from the male intellectual navel-gazing he gravitates towards when left to his own devices (While We’re Young, Greenberg, Mr. Jealousy).
Mistress America opens on Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman in New York City having trouble finding her social niche, especially after having a short story rejected by a snooty school literary society. And so she reaches out to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the thirtysomething soon-to-be stepsister whom she’s never met, despite the fact that her mother will soon be marrying Brooke’s father. It turns out Brooke has the confidence Tracy lacks – she’s a tornado of aspirations and ideas – if not quite the track record to back it up.
There’s an airiness to Mistress America (as well as Frances Ha) that’s missing from Baumbach’s other movies. It’s as if being freed from carrying the bulk of the creative burden allows for a certain looseness. Here you can sense it in the score – a cheery ode to ’80s synth pop by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham (of Dean & Britta) – and in the sheer speed of the scenes. The whirlwind tour of New York that Brooke gives Tracy is a light-on-its-feet montage of funny asides that also deftly serves as character development. (Tracy: “I want to write short stories.” Brooke, a quarter second after: “Oh me too. But not short stories.”)
There’s a forcefulness to Brooke that I haven’t seen in previous Gerwig characters.
In its own flitting way, Mistress America tackles some of the same concerns as While We’re Young, especially the notion that creative ambition can curdle if you haven’t reached particular mile markers after a certain age. This is the crisis Brooke is facing, even if her instinctive narcissism makes it hard for her to recognize it.
If it’s good to have Baumbach stretched again by working with Gerwig, it’s also a nice surprise to find that Gerwig is stretching here, too, beyond the dazed guilelessness that has defined many of her performances. There’s a forcefulness to Brooke that I haven’t seen in previous Gerwig characters, as well as an added intentionality to Gerwig’s comic approach. She’s hitting bigger beats (timing again) and going for bigger laughs, yet what’s especially impressive is that she still makes it seem effortless.
Consider her entrance in the film, as she steps down a garish stairway in Times Square to meet Tracy. “Welcome to the Great White Way!” she intones like a Broadway diva, and at first we’re wowed (as Tracy is) by her joie de vivre. But then Brooke realizes she has about 12 more stairs to go, without much else to say, and so the moment drags out in comic awkwardness. It’s funny, but also our first hint that Brooke isn’t quite the elegant urbanite she claims to be.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Gerwig, but the film is really a duet by her and Kirke. They play off each other wonderfully, especially in the early scenes, in which Brooke takes just about any comment Tracy makes and hits it off a racquetball wall so that the conversation comes immediately back to focus on her. Kirke is the straight woman in these scenes, yet there’s a twinkle in her eye that lets us know, early on, that Tracy is not entirely fooled by Brooke’s facade.
This eventually leads to a confrontation during the movie’s hilarious third act. Set at a suburban Connecticut mansion, where Brooke has gone to woo an investor for a restaurant concept with Tracy and a few fellow students in tow, the sequence keeps piling on the characters and complications until it’s worked itself up from screwball comedy to straight-out farce. It may all be a bit broad and unserious for some Baumbach fans, but after groaning through much of While We Were Young, I found the timing of Mistress America to be just right.