Back when Greta Gerwig was doing publicity for Frances Ha (2013), she dropped a couple of very vague hints to me about what she and Noah Baumbach were writing for their next collaboration. The most telling remark was that the next film would be nothing like Frances Ha — and Ms. Gerwig did not lie. Mistress America — though evidencing the same sensibility and a Hot Chocolate song on the soundtrack — isn’t like Frances Ha. It is, however, just as wonderful — maybe even better. It is also probably more accessible to a broader audience, since Mistress America not only boasts something of the feel and speed of a classic screwball comedy, it’s also the most classically formal of Baumbach’s films.
There’s a hint of Woody Allen to it — and something of Whit Stillman (the trip to Greenwich, Connecticut, bears a striking similarity to the trip to Long Island in Stillman’s 1990 debut film, Metropolitan). None of this is to say that Mistress America is derivative. Everything has the distinctive tone of both Baumbach and co-writer star Gerwig. Its formalism is strictly technical. And its screwball-comedy sensibility hides depths of sadness and insecurities. Oh, it’s funny. It is almost certainly Baumbach’s funniest film — and it’s in the running for 2015’s funniest, too — but it’s more than that.
Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker and would-be entrepreneur — assuming she can ever settle on a single scheme and get the financing. She’s the logical descendant of a 1930s Carole Lombard character, but in strictly modern terms. She suffers — or maybe enjoys — a similar fuzzy-minded naïveté, but differs in other regards. We meet her through Tracy (Lola Kirke), an awkward 18-year-old college girl with literary ambitions, whose mother (Kathryn Erbe) is set to marry Brooke’s father. In a funk over feeling out of place at college and having been rejected by the school’s prestigious (and snobbish) literary society, Tracy is prompted to take her mother’s advice to call Brooke. This somewhat tenuous status of future-step-sister is good enough for Brooke, who seems to be perfectly happy to have a new audience. Tracy, for her part, is not only fascinated by the more worldly Brooke, but recognizes that her new friend and soon-to-be quasi-relative is terrific material for a story.
This all comes to a head when Brooke’s screwy plan for a combination hair salon, art gallery, restaurant and a gathering place for other hip and creative people (like herself, of course) comes crashing down when Brooke’s never-seen boyfriend/backer pulls out. Since this leaves Brooke deeply in debt, she and Tracy hatch a plan to get the money from Brooke’s rich ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and her former best friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). The question of how to get from New York to Greenwich is settled by enlisting Tracy’s only college friend — and near-miss boyfriend — Tony (Michael Shear) to drive them, though this means Tony’s insanely possessive girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) will have to tag along (and in a state of almost terrifying sullenness).
This sets the stage for the film’s most concentrated comic set-piece with Brooke and her entourage and Mamie-Claire and Dylan — along with a pregnant book-club member (Cindy Cheung) waiting for her husband to pick her up, and an unfriendly neighbor (Dean Wareham) — engaging in rapid-fire dialogue and recriminations, and the revelation that Tracy has written a story about Brooke. It’s very funny and played like perfect farce, but it stings at the same time — and marks the shift toward the film’s more serious final stretch. Don’t misunderstand. The film never becomes depressing, and this is by no means the usual “penultimate reel of gloom,” but it does take a necessary turn that provides the story with a perfect ending.
Mistress America clocks in at a breathless 84 minutes and it wastes none of them, which is in itself a delight in a time when all too many movies drag on for more than two hours to no good point. It is a marvel of a little movie, one of the best I’ve seen this year, and it is without a doubt the best thing you will see in theaters this week — and probably for the next few weeks. Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre.