Bringing Up Gerwig: A Review of Noah Baumbach’s ‘Mistress America’

mistress america

Talking about Mistress America is talking about two talented auteurs collaborating at the top of their game and creating what might very well be their masterpiece.

In the most traditional “auteur theory” corner, you have director Noah Baumbach, who I’ve only recently realized is one of the most talented filmmakers working today. More specifically, he is one of the most talented human observers working today. On paper, Baumbach’s movies can be dismissed as entries in the tired genre of big city intellectual-types having problems dealing with their privilege. In practice, however, they reveal an uncanny observer behind the camera, a man with the talent to parse through common life experiences looking for the most exact and biting gestures. Once they’re in his movies, these gestures paint the characters in a portrait so rich it makes the limitations of other phony directors working in the genre look even worse by comparison.

The other auteur is Greta Gerwig, commonly referred to as the “indie queen”. A title of dubious intention, that nevertheless gives us a hint to how exactly Gerwig fits in a world of up-and-coming female actors, writers, and directors that are making a living telling stories about their experiences as young women in the big city. Gerwig stands out within this group as a supremely confident figure, not so much a realist portrait of a woman finding her identity through self-doubt, but an idealized figure ruled by fun and confidence over the more chaotic aspects of her personality. It was the refreshing life force of Gerwig’s persona that made the previous collaboration between Gerwig and Baumbach, Frances Haso appealing, and it’s that very same image that they set out to explore in Mistress America. 

In strict terms, the protagonist of the movie is eighteen year-old college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), who is overwhelmed by her new life in an elitist Columbia University campus that is more preoccupied with pretentious appearances than actual people. It’s in the middle of this emotional crisis that Tracy reaches out to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething living in the city whose dad is engaged to Tracy’s mom. Brooke is a concentrated dose of Gerwig’s star personality. She would be overwhelmingly quirky if she wasn’t so magnetically hilarious. She’s an autodidact who jumps from concert to bar to party spouting little bits of wisdom. Tracy is immediately smitten with admiration.

Thusly begins a sisterhood and a friendship that feels a lot like an apprenticeship. Every minute Tracy spends with Brooke reveals more wonderful sides to her life and personality. Hanging out with her becomes addictive, and we can’t blame Tracy. Even though we can spot some of Brooke’s more ridiculous claims more easily than doe-eyed Tracy can, there is no denying that there is something seductive about seeing such a hurricane of a woman make her way through life. Brooke has spent a lot of time crafting her image (“people need to know what you’re selling”), but it is an image nevertheless. It’s not material, it can’t be owned. Not by Tracy, who desperately tries to capture her first night with Brooke in a short story, and not even by Brooke, who quickly learns her confident philosophy can clash quite hardly with reality.

Like many other entries in Baumbach’s world, this is a movie about appearances. About who we are, who we want to be, and how we set out to achieve our goals. Exactly what the movie has to say about the subject through its meta-filmic foray into the scrutiny that comes with depictions of women by women in the media is something I will have to discover in further viewings of the movie, but just like Brooke, who is selling so many things, so is Mistress America -in its swift 84 minutes- offering more to chew on than almost any movie that’s come out this year. And having said that, I can’t believe I’ve gone this long into the review without mentioning how this is the most hilarious movie of the year.

The middle section of the movie, in particular, is the funniest thing Baumbach and Gerwig have ever created. Set in a mansion in Greenwhich, Connecticut, Mistress America‘s second act turns into a revolving door farce that can easily stand up to the work of screwball comedy masters like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgess. It’s a bizarre turn of events in a movie that seemed to be very much grounded in reality up to that point, and if it weren’t for the writing, and the pace, and the cleverness, and the performances, maybe it wouldn’t work. But the truth is so many things go so well that it cannot be a coincidence. This is an impeccably crafted sequence.

This second act detour is delightful, and it’s also a sign of the experimentation that seems to be the recurrent element in this third leg of Baumbach’s career. Earlier this year, While We’re Young saw the director quite successfully explore with meta-commentary and more outwardly comedic elements. On that front, Mistress America blows While We’re Young out of the water. It is as honest and insightful as it is hilarious. It’s simply one of the best movies of the year. I cannot wait to see it again… and again… and again…

Grade: 10 out of 10

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