Noah Baumbach started making movies in 1995. Until 2010 when he met Greta Gerwig while making Greenberg, he authored 5 films over the course of 15 years, all funny but a lot bitter, bleak even too (Kicking & Screaming, Mr. Jealousy (an oft overlooked gem), Highball, Squid & The Whale and Margot at the Wedding). Since meeting, falling in love, and starting to collaborate with Gerwig he has entered a kind of happiness renaissance: in the 5 year span from 2010 to 2015, he has made four movies, almost tripling his output frequency. And to boot: all those movies were substantially lighter and hopeful the previous five, including his TWO this year, the funny, self-aware, twisty While We’re Young and now, this week’s lovely, screwball, energizer bunny Mistress America.
Whether it is Gerwig’s influence or not, Baumbach, making movies in the 2010s has become downright prolific and cheerful. And that’s something to be truly excited about.
Mistress America, which like Frances Ha was co-written by Gerwig, is a fizzy tall drink of spritzer in this summer movie apocalyptic times. The movie starts with Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman at Barnard just not finding a place for herself or her work in both college and the big, messy place that is New York City. Her Mother is about to marry a man she barely knows over Thanksgiving, and over one of the regular phone check-ins, she suggest Tracy reach out to Brooke, her soon to be stepsister, who is 30, and supposedly living the New York dream. Tracy is reluctant for all the right reasons (“I am just so bad at calling people I don’t know.” / “She is 30 and has a life. What would she want with me?”) but on a particularly down day, sitting in front of a whole pie she just ate she dials the number, and… everything changes.
Brooke is one of those mythical creatures you are sort of aware exist but almost never get to observe in their natural habitat. She lives in Times Square, unironically. She sings in a band. She is in the party photo pages all the time. She has a rich Greek boyfriend named Stavros who loves her just as she is. She has great ideas ALL THE TIME and someone always steals them. Her latest is opening a restaurant in Williamsburg which will be also a general store, a hang-out, a hair salon, and more. She is so ebullient and unstoppable you can’t help but buy into it all, as evidenced by the fact that the whole time we’re watching this movie NO ONE (NO ONE!) mentions that having a hair salon in the same room as a restaurant is a bad, deeply unhygienic idea. Everyone just wants to be around Brooke, and her deeply, blindingly infectious energy. Greta Gerwig was BORN to both write and play her.
Tracy is instantly taken by this creature, both exciting and kind, generous and impulsive, and finally finds fodder for her writing (maybe, some may argue in a way Gerwig served as this unforseen catalyst for Baumbach, who you can imagine identifying with Tracy’s freshman experience) and everything is great. Until it isn’t. Money, as always, comes into play. Or lack of it. And love. Or the abundance of it. And the two leads embark on a journey to fix things (sort of, because neither is really capable do any kind of fixing, but they both want to try). And in a scene that is straight from a Jean Arthur screwball opus, it all comes to a head.
I am not going to share any more of the plot, because the dizzy ride is worth experiencing head on, and it is done masterfully. No beats are skipped, no punches spared, no lines delivered with anything short of perfect panache (in fact, this movie is probably one of the more quotable gems of the decade), and no one is safe even when enveloped in the sparkling dancepop soundtrack provided by Britta Phillips and Dean Warenhaim. He has a small, but pivotal role in the film.
And somehow, while the movie is perfectly orchestrated, much like that pivotal scene and that lovely score, manages to ring true, just like Brooke and Tracy do, we see underneath all that veneer and armor. Because the theme is universal: we, the people, are collectively hopeful and sad, and vulnerable, and selfish and a 1000 other things we don’t want to project to the world. Some of us just find better masks to wear.