“Welcome to the Great White Way!” Brooke declares from the middle of the glowing staircase in Times Square, arms outstretched in a glamorous convivial gesture. She wants to make a good impression, since she’s meeting her soon-to-be stepsister for the first time. It’s just too bad that she shouted her greeting too early, and so gingerly makes her way down the steps while awkwardly holding her pose, flashes of panic on her face as she tries not to trip. This early scene in Mistress America, Noah Baumbach’s new comedy, is a snapshot of the relationship at its core, one woman looking up to, and yet aware of the flaws of, another. The difference between the spectacular moments in their minds and the sad realities bringing them down, between grand intentions and wobbly reality, is mined for hilarity, but also for great empathy.
These are two women trying to forge their identities in the crucible of New York City, bound together by nothing more than the impending marriage of one’s father to the other’s mother. What they make of this new connection is as funny as it is revealing. The bouncy score (by Luna’s Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham) motors a comedy of complicated characters, a nicely drawn charmer gaining sharp insight and quick laughs by creating characters specifically drawn and deeply felt. Brooke, a sunny 30-year-old, has been living in the city for several years. The younger is Tracy, a fresh-faced 18, just moved in from the suburbs to attend college. Tracy is pulled immediately into Brooke’s magnetic orbit, instantly enamored with a new big sister who personifies everything she thought life as a young adult in New York should be: interesting, funny, ambitious, connected, with sharp fashion sense and the charm to be the life of every party.
Lola Kirke plays Tracy with a look of shy awe, feeling lucky to have found such a perfect mentor to guide her into a glamorous and productive adulthood. Taken under the wing of this new friend, she’s led out to bars, clubs, concerts, and hipster hangouts, even allowed to crash on the couch in a homey studio apartment hidden illegally in a commercially zoned building. Creative juices flowing, she begins to write a short story inspired by Brooke, lovely precocious freshman prose that becomes warm narration throughout. There we discover the sharp observations Tracy has, the kind Brooke would never stop to consider about herself. And what a character Brooke is! Played by Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote with her Frances Ha partner Baumbach, she's a bubbly extrovert charging through every scenario convinced she’s the master of the universe.
She shows up at all the best places, possesses a tremendous clarity about her goals (she wants to start a restaurant where people can also shop, and get their haircut, and more), and is eager to invite a younger friend into her life as a prop (to show off, and to use as support). Is it a real friendship the women create? Who’s to say? Brooke’s one of those people who seems to know everyone and be close friends with most of them. Still, the genius in Gerwig’s performance of boundless energy and daffy quotability (“I don’t know if you’re a zen master or a sociopath,” she tells a deadpan friend) is her ability to casually pick holes in Brooke’s façade. She’s desperate to be considered a success, fills every silence with hollow patter, and mercilessly observes everyone’s flaws but her own. Her constant movement and talk serves as a way to throw doubt and insecurities away from herself and on to others.
What Baumbach and Gerwig create is a portrait of a woman who is a dazzling frazzled idea machine, creative but without good follow-through. She’s totally lovable, but spiked with off-putting self-involvement. At one point, she encounters an old high school classmate who confesses memories of her as a hurtful bully. Brooke nonchalantly confesses she can’t feel sorry since she doesn’t remember. It’s ice cold, and seemingly doesn’t impact the rest of her chipper conversation to which she immediately returns. We follow Brooke and Tracy through a collection of beautifully executed comic scenarios populated with broad types who quickly become fully fleshed people whose loves and lives and dreams really matter. The scene with the old classmate has such an impact because of the instant humanity it observes. We see how difficult it is to have your self-image interrupted by a view from outside your head, and how much easier it would be to not let such perspective cloud your good time.
An endlessly witty confection worth savoring on a line-by-line basis, the film forges a real and tangible connection to its characters while sharply observing modern social dynamics. We meet some self-serious college kids (Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones) and bunch of wealthy Connecticut suburbanites (including Michael Chernus and Heather Lind, who Brooke considers her “nemesis”) as the movie builds to a lengthy farcical climax. It teases out its casual ideas about gender politics and income inequality as punchlines roll in rapid waves. But what’s most satisfying is the patient and casually moving moments that follow, bringing its unsettled threads together as characters finally must reckon with the impact of their actions and relationships.
It’s probably Baumbach’s most sweetly affectionate film, certainly less openly acidic than something like The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg, though just as cynical in its softer way. The movie allows its characters to be figures of fun and yet nonjudgmentally free to be who they are. It gets what it’s like to enjoy someone’s presence, without really buying into the persona they’re selling, just as surely as it knows the hustle it takes to make a life for yourself outside the homogenous norm. The movie respects its characters' flaws while allowing them room for potential and growth, and it is all the sunnier for it. Call it the Gerwig effect. She brings out the best in Baumbach. With casually beautiful framing and perfectly timed editing (from Sam Levy and Jennifer Lame, respectively, who were also key Frances Ha collaborators), Baumbach makes Mistress America a light and energetic comedy of dialogue and manners that manages to draw real and modern emotional truths in the process.