“That’s cool about the frozen yogurt machine. Everyone I love dies.”
[do_widget id= text-55 ]
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s new film offers no lack of lede-worthy quotes, so consistently witty is the script they both wrote, but the one above, spoken by Brooke (Gerwig) to her stepsister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke), also stings. Banal, morbid and hilariously flippant for pairing the two, this line captures the jagged pleasures and laced wisdom of Mistress America, the latest must-see from this prolific, ever-ambitious director-actress unit.
Like plenty of classics before it, the movie revolves around a new relationship, in turns cheery and toxic, between two young women. Brooke, in her early 30s, tutors, teaches spin class, interior decorates, and plans on opening a downhome restaurant in Williamsburg called “Mom’s.” In Tracy’s words, Brooke sells “everything and nothing,” getting by off her seeming industry and “rare” beauty “that made you want to look more like yourself and less like her.”
If that quote impresses you — or even if it doesn’t — it follows naturally that Tracy is a freshman majoring in creative writing at Barnard. Rejected by the esteemed Mobius Literary Magazine and her orientation week crush Tony (Matthew Shear), Tracy staves off boredom and worse by checking in with Brooke, the daughter of the man her mom (Kathryn Erbe, understated and excellent) is about to marry.
Invigorated by a night out with the new sis yet unconvinced of her Tracy bangs out “Mistress America,” a short story tightly based on Brooke’s fast, mercurial life. Though saving praise for her looks and spirit, Tracy’s narrator pretty much rips into Brooke for her naivety and emptiness, which as her title implies is symptomatic of some greater crisis in American vanity, self-worth, even promiscuity today.
Tracy writes, as a key character later observes, like a dude, and sure enough, because of this shift, Mobius magazine comes back calling, Tony grows jealous and her bond with Brooke strains. Her literary success comes at the expense of personal relationships, an old theme played here devastatingly well.
As in While We’re Young, Baumbach strikes a highly (self-)critical tone on how an artist mines her life and the lives of others in pursuit of naturalistic yet pointed work. This time he and Gerwig gesture to critiques big and small, meta and political — that cultural gatekeepers (Mobius) prefer their protégés male, that Tracy can profit off hating other women, that fiction must always answer to its social context, that making art, in some cases, enables a life of annihilating behavior — themes that intensify and intermesh through the nuances of performance.
Lola Kirke, last seen in Gone Girl as a white trash mugger, is the find here, troublingly convincing at letting her face go blank and confessing, “I’m worried I don’t have a conscience.” I’ll chalk it up to talent, and looks: Under DP Sam Levy’s cold, underlit set-ups, her face rests in some indeterminable point between brooding and inattention. She looks very much the writer.
Did I neglect to mention that Mistress America is a comedy? With Gerwig receiving top billing (though she is arguably supporting to Kirke), much of the film’s draw is in watching the gifted screen actress be someone new. We first see Brooke atop those red TKTS bleachers in Times Square, waving and welcoming Tracy, and then the shot waits as she slowly, silently makes her way down, eyes on her heels. Though more glamorous than her protagonist in Frances Ha, she retains Frances’ awkward, labored grace.
A half-hour progression of scenes in the Greenwich home of her ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus, from Orange Is the New Black) and proclaimed “nemesis” Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) is the film’s centerpiece, testing the actors’ abilities to stage winning repartee and Baumbach’s instincts to lucidly and comically contain them all. Rest assured everyone knocks it out of the park, especially Jasmine Cephas Jones, as Tony’s fuming, ignored girlfriend.
Baumbach prefers unshowy master shots with dynamic blocking, a classic aesthetic that favors actors, audiences and fun. Running gags involving a Chipwich and a pregnant friend of Mamie-Claire’s waiting for her husband flit by the fringes of the frame while more prominent characters quarrel in its center. Baumbach hits his most farcical here at Greenwich when the tables turn on Tracy, who takes heat from seven characters lined up in a verbal firing squad, former friends and enemies united in their disdain of her fiction.
One of the seven is Harold, the icy pediatrician next door played by Dean Wareham. Former leader of dream pop legends Galaxie 500 and certified dreamboat to this day, Wareham composed, with Britta Phillips, the thoroughly 80s score that gives Mistress America its bounce and much of its soul. With hits from O.M.D., Suicide and Hot Chocolate on the soundtrack, Wareham, Phillips and Baumbach have assembled the sweetest set of movie music I’ve heard since Inherent Vice.
Baumbach’s films only seem to play it safe, with these appeals to pop nostalgia and their indisputably white, chic milieus. In fact they expose, break down and above all challenge their characters, their problems and their larger frames of reference, or at least Mistress America does — trenchantly, playfully, empathetically.
Late in the film, Tracy heals some wounds with Brooke by helping her pack (Brooke: “In LA I qualify as well-read.” ), and their conversation pitches outward to collect all their aspirations and attendant anxieties. They basically conclude that because there are so many routes for one to choose, so many books to read, so many mediums of art through which to express oneself, that their lives would be easier and thus better if fascists limited their roles, dictating to them what to do.
I can’t think of any line in recent American cinema as irresponsible and appealing, concurrently, as this. Mistress America is a late capitalist screwball, positively prescient.
[do_widget id= text-61 ]