Why You Need to See Noah Baumbach’s ‘Mistress America’

By
Nick Chen

After embodying Charlie Brown in Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig is in Lucy van Pelt mode for Mistress America, a deft screwball comedy exhibiting the humour and empathy absent from While We’re Young. Following the Frances Ha formula – Noah Baumbach directs, Gerwig stars, they both write – their latest is distinctly lighter but faster, bursting with life as characters pop in and out of the frame to pile on the zingers.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old student discovering in her first semester that university is like being stuck at a party where she doesn’t know anyone. Friendless in New York, she turns to her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), and is taken for a wild, farcical ride that you never want to end. Here’s why you should run, in the style of Gerwig, to a cinema this Friday for Mistress America.

IT SHARES THE BEST ELEMENTS OF FRANCES HA...

Watch the trailer for 'Mistress America'.

In telling the story of a more overtly comedic, frantic older stepsister, Mistress America is itself a more overtly comedic, frantic older stepsister to Frances Ha. Still shuffling between jobs, Brooke is, like Frances, another dreamer, juggling part-time jobs (freelance interior decorator, aerobics instructor etc) with an eye on opening a restaurant.

Again, Baumbach and Gerwig smartly detail female friendship in New York and satirise youthful hipster aspirations, but from a place of warmth and understanding – much unlike While We’re Young (shot after Mistress America) which, without Gerwig’s involvement, felt like Baumbach yelling at kids to get off his Manhattan lawn.

...WITHOUT BEING A RETREAD OF FRANCES HA

Frances Ha: Chapter II this ain’t. While Gerwig’s character may seem more mature (she’s settled on a flat, for instance), Brooke is a different kind of self-involved optimist, more attuned to spinning plates than pausing to wallow. Frances flies to Paris for a sulky weekend; Brooke road trips to Connecticut for a business proposal.

Whereas the monochrome cinematography of Frances Ha evoked the French New Wave, Mistress America dabbles in the soft colour palette of 80s comedies, with Brooke introducing herself to Lola on the iconic red steps of Times Square. Really, it’s closer to a Frances Ha prequel, as 18-year-old Lola – a wannabe writer with only Brooke’s stories to tell – hasn’t quite reached a quarter-life crisis clearly coming her way.

BAUMBACH & GERWIG NAIL THE LUBITSCH TOUCH

Via PR.

Few contemporary directors are able to recreate the precise chaos and rapid rhythm of 1940s screwball comedy. Baumbach, however, passes the test with flying, quick-witted colours. The fingerprints of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks are all over Mistress America, especially when the second half evolves into an intricate farce at a wealthy stranger’s expansive home (a common Ernst Lubitsch setting).

The diligent camerawork balances a circus of characters that internally fight, scheme, eavesdrop and barely keep a lid on romantic desires. Someone will walk into a room just in time for the perfect zinger, and then leave a few seconds later. It all feels natural, bursting with energy, rather than just winking nods. Whether it’s chemistry or competiveness between two distinct artists, the Gerwig/Baumbach combo possess the Lubitsch touch.

THE RETRO 80s SCORE

That being said, Mistress America hums along to an extremely 80s score – generous with synths, heavy on nostalgia. What sounds like instrumentals of real 80s pop hits was specifically composed by Dean Wareham (founder of Galaxie 500 and Luna) and Britta Phillips (singer of Jem and the Holograms), the same songwriting duo who scored The Squid & the Whale. Baumbach describes the sound as a mixture of New Order and Orchestral Movements in the Dark. It’s also redolent of Wareham’s shoegaze background: dreamy tracks that are bittersweet and distinctive, yet not too distracting when so much is already happening on the screen.

THE SIDE CHARACTERS ARE ALL HILARIOUS

“She doesn’t have any good ideas for herself,” Brooke says of her ex-friend and nemesis Mimi Claire, “so she stole my friends and my fiancé, and she literally stole my cats.” This sparks a road trip for Brooke, accompanied by Tracy, her (not boy)friend Tony, and Tony’s paranoid girlfriend Nicolette. “We look crazy,” Brooke notes as she marks to the front door. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

The anarchy multiplies with a braggy neighbour (“I saw Nirvana live before Nevermind”), a pregnant book club (“bullshit, those pregnant women are super-smart”), a surprisingly chill rich dude, and of course, the stolen cats. At just 84 teasing minutes, there are only glimpses of these oddballs – I’d watch a spinoff.

ALL HAIL THE KING OF LITERATURE HUMOUR

The high percentage of authors in Baumbach films remains high with Lola and Tony recalling Kicking and Screaming’s creative writing students: competitive, arrogant, and eager to discuss everything about their artistic process – except that they’re still unpublished. “Sometimes I think I’m a genius,” Tony says sincerely, “and I wish I could fast-forward to the part when everybody knows it.” The pathos of a frustrated writer is always funnier than an overnight success.

As someone who took a few creative writing modules at university, I’m glad someone’s tackled the comedy minefield of literary magazine politics and the awkwardness of exchanging feedback with classmates. Furthermore, Lola’s short story inspiration – an unflattering profile of Brooke – riffs upon a recurring Baumbach quandary, that the best fiction will often upset the real-life inspiration. In what could also be a message to critics, Lola insists there’s nothing wrong with unlikeable characters.

GERWIG & BAUMBACH BRING THE BEST OUT OF EACH OTHER

Via PR.

Imagine that Baumbach is Ben Stiller in Greenberg, struggling with midlife inertia, until he’s revitalised by Gerwig’s character. While The Squid & the Whale is still, for me, Baumbach’s crowning achievement, recent evidence more than suggests he and Gerwig raise each other’s game. It’s hard to imagine Mistress America with a different star or director.

Now all the best comedy seems to be on TV, Mistress America must be cherished for not blending into the background – the trailer, although whoever cut it tried, does not work with record scratches and pausing the music for a punchline. The material is too rich and original – with a healthy ratio of quotable lines per minute, it needs to be seen twice to catch all the jokes.

Everything Brooke plans – the restaurant and the road trip itself – is flawed, yet admirable. In those planning stages, before fantasies crumble, life is a joyous comedy worth celebrating. As Lola puts it in the car, she wishes the journey would last forever. For doomed romanticism, Mistress America can’t be beaten.

‘Mistress America’ opens in the UK and US on 14 August

@halfacanyon

Work On Canvas

Our new project celebrates the skill and unconventional creativity of working artisans. This is Work On Canvas.

Read more