Mistress America marks the third major collaboration between indie writer/director, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the first two being Greenberg and Frances Ha. Similarly to Frances Ha, Mistress America is also co-written by Greta Gerwig, who also serves as a co-lead. The film follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a practically friendless college student who wants to be a writer. One day she decides to meet up with a soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an eccentric and adventurous New Yorker. Tracy finds herself enamored and caught-up in Brooke’s strange schemes.
A couple weeks ago I saw She’s Funny That Way, a send-up to old screwball comedies. While it wasn’t terrible, it was a disappointing and subpar feature from a director who has done similar work before. Mistress America is probably the best examples of a modern screwball comedy, retaining all the laughs, energy and timing that makes screwball comedies so fun, and it keeps those elements fairly consistently (after an admittedly rough first 10 minutes) and building up to an incredible third act where things go insane in the best way possible. It’s the kind of film Woody Allen would have made in the early 70s. The film showcases fantastic comedic performances and expert comic timing and perfect edits and cutaways. While Noah Baumbach is by no means a stranger to comedy, as even his most dramatic films have shades of humor, Mistress America is his first full-on comedy, and it is easily among his best work as a filmmaker.
One thing found interesting is that the film deals in something similar to his previous (and also pretty great) film, While We’re Young and that is the exploration of – cue the dramatic music – millennials. In While We’re Young, Ben Stiller’s character (a Gen X-er) was practically horrified as he stared youth in the face after being initially seduced by its care-freeness. It’s a far more cynical and scathing film than Mistress America, which is practically the antithesis of While We’re Young. Mistress America is far more hopeful and empathetic towards millennials, it goes out of its way to try and understand why they see the world in the way they see it. This holds especially true in how they both do scene towards the end where a character is exposed, I won’t spoil it, but the way they both so differently handle the revelation speaks volumes as to what the film is trying to say on a thematic level. It’s the big reason why I very much prefer Mistress America over While We’re Young.
It helps that the two leads, Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig, are both absolutely phenomenal. Lola Kirke is an effortlessly likeable presence, very curious and observant, full of intelligence and honesty. She’s one of the better portrayals of a young, wannabe writer that I’ve seen in a very long time. Greta Gerwig is a powerhouse of wit and charm, with practically every word coming from her mouth being unpredictable, and her chemistry with everyone in the film is on point. Everyone in the cast from Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke to Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Michael Chernus is top notch. There’s not a weak link in the cast and they work with the comedy very well.
Despite being a fairly straight forward comedy, there’s a lot of heart to the film. It uses the comedy to build on character relationships, especially between Tracy and Brooke. Once things do turn a bit serious and confrontational at a point in the final act, it hits hard because of how invested you find yourself in the characters. It’s a film about understanding the position of the characters, but it has the honesty to say that that some things just aren’t easy. It continues to maintain a sense of humanity and empathy for the characters though because it accepts them for who they are, especially Brooke. It doesn’t shy away from some dark elements, but warmth and kindness behind everything more than makes everything easier to swallow.
Mistress America proves that the way of the screwball comedy is not dead just yet. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny (seriously, once the film goes to Greenwich, Connecticut, it’s a sight to behold), but there’s an emotional honesty and empathy with the characters that really pushes the film over into being a genuinely great piece of work. It’s a quickly-paced story that doesn’t overstay its welcome with a short runtime of only 84 minutes. However, it uses its short time smartly and efficiently, with great character work and humor that provides for some career-best work from both Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.