Mistress America Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated R. Opens Friday.
The Noah Baumbach of Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg was a cynical chronicler of the passive-aggressive nastiness of the privileged and overeducated. The writer-director brought caustic wit to the stories of self-righteous and condescending characters like Nicole Kidman’s Margot and Ben Stiller’s Greenberg, and his movies cut deep. Baumbach’s more recent films might seem to have softened his view on humanity, but as he proves in the brilliant Mistress America, he’s learned to temper his jaded view of interpersonal relationships with a bit of optimism, and that makes all the difference. Baumbach’s characters are still self-absorbed and awkward, but they have a sunnier disposition about it.
A big part of Baumbach’s development can be credited to Greta Gerwig, who co-starred in Greenberg and starred in and co-wrote 2012’s glorious Frances Ha (she’s also Baumbach’s romantic partner in real life). Gerwig is once again star and co-writer for Mistress America, in which she plays flighty and exuberantly friendly New Yorker Brooke, the kind of person who has a million “projects” in the works but no concrete plans for making a living or running a business. Brooke, however, seems amazingly accomplished to wide-eyed college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), who’s new to New York and feeling lonely. Brooke’s dad and Tracy’s mom are about to get married, so the two pseudo-siblings are encouraged to connect.
And connect they do, as Tracy attaches herself to Brooke, hinging her slowly emerging sense of self on this woman who is bursting with ideas for her combination restaurant/hair salon/art gallery, not to mention books, music, clothing lines and more. There’s an undercurrent of sadness to Brooke’s showy enthusiasm, and both Tracy and Baumbach pick up on it in subtle and sometimes devastating ways. But Mistress America isn’t a sad movie; it’s a bubbly comedy that sometimes recalls the screwball farces of the ’30s, and it’s filled with sharp, hilarious, quotable lines. Gerwig is fantastic as a woman who, shark-like, feels like she will perish if she loses momentum, and Kirke matches her as a teenager who becomes more herself with every new interaction and observation. Baumbach and Gerwig have made a movie every bit as self-assured as their protagonist, but unlike Brooke, they have the talent and creativity to back it up, from beginning to end.