The lively creative partnership between writer/director Noah Baumbach and writer/star Greta Gerwig produced one perfectly pleasant piece of cinema in 2013’s “Frances Ha.” That film appropriated the techniques of the French New Wave greats and applied their general vibe to an (un)happy-go-lucky New York twenty-something.
Their reteaming on “Mistress America” yields something both more ambitious and fulfilling. Baumbach and Gerwig weave together elements from theatrical, literary, and cinematic antecedents to create one truly insightful comedic masterpiece. The finished film is nothing short of “The Great Gatsby” for the Google generation.
New freshman Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) arrives to Barnard without a clue or many friends. She aspires to write but cannot crack the top literary society nor connect with peers also in need of external validation. The vastness of Manhattan nearly devours lonely Tracy, but before it can, she makes a last-ditch phone call to future stepsister Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig).
Brooke is like Tracy, a transplant in the city, but she seems to have found some way to fake it until she made it. (Or, at least until she could pay some bills.) On one wild night bopping across town, Tracy becomes fascinated with her future next of kin. And given the way Gerwig plays Brooke, she would be be a fool not to get drawn into her larger-than-life personality.
Brooke is an odd hodgepodge of Williamsburg hipster, Silicon Valley self-help maxim spouter, and that newest breed of social media-crazed narcissism. With her motormouth, she converses with her own train of thought first and others around her second. Chief among her ramblings is rampant self-mythologizing to a disturbingly hilarious degree; perhaps Brooke fears that if her lips were to close, she might have to think through the words that come out of them.
To borrow a phrase from Fitzgerald himself, Tracy finds herself “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” in her new relative. Brooke sees herself as an American success story, one constantly open to reinvention until she achieves her dream. But Tracy, ever the writer, sees a disparity between Brooke’s self-image and her actual achievements.
Reconciling the paradoxes of her personality becomes a prosaic fascination for Tracy, who finally finds the spark of inspiration that elevates her work to the next level. She starts tailing Brooke with great frequency in the hopes that her stepsister’s new venture, an ambitious community center/restaurant, continues to provide fodder. Even as Tracy turns her from person to character, she can never fully decide where to draw the line between the two. Though she might excoriate the literary personality on the page, does she actually like Brooke as a person?
Like Nick Carraway with Jay Gatsby, Tracy gets to observe a walking tragedy occur to the very person whose identity is inseparably woven with her idea of what New York City represents. Everything comes to a head in a similar domestic setting to Fitzgerald’s tale; in “Mistress America,” that would be the Greenwich estate of Brooke’s ex-BFF and current nemesis Mamie Claire. Instead of heightened melodrama, however, Baumbach choreographs a masterful farce of a set piece that proves astonishing in its precision.
The movie only runs 84 minutes, but the extended scene at the mansion alone feels like it has the feverish energy to span the entire runtime. “Mistress America” maximizes every second it has, packing them so full of hysterical one-liners and comical glances that it will take several rewatches to fully grasp its depth. Like its central character, the film requires extended exposure to arrive at a sense of clarity and understanding. Achieving that will likely never be as fun as Baumbach and Gerwig make it here. A /