Tuesday, September 1, 2015

MISTRESS AMERICA - No Sophomore Slump for the Baumbach/Gerwig Team


- I hope that the Noah Baumbach / Greta Gerwig team is one that we get many more movies from in the years ahead. The combination of Baumbach's wit with Gerwig's whimsy made Frances Ha one of the best films of the last few years. Now, the two have re-teamed for MISTRESS AMERICA, another farcical look at young adults in New York City. I'm not sure if their latest has quite the electric feel of Frances Ha, but it does, in its own way, really sizzle. Gerwig is such a fascinating on-screen presence - seeing her play a different sort of character in this one is a lot of fun.

Typically, we've seen Gerwig as the awkward ingenue paired with more worldly and experienced characters. Here, she's graduated to be this movie's Gatsby - the very embodiment of the young New York cliche. The film see's Gerwig's 30-ish Brooke get introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister, college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) prior to their parents' wedding day. Tracy has just moved to the city to go to school at Barnard, and though at first she's reluctant to reach out to Brooke, she soon finds herself excited to have this new pseudo older sister who can show her the ropes. Tracy is into writing, and she finds in Brooke a muse - a hopeless mess who knows everything and nothing all at once - a dreamer whose window to make her dreams come true is quickly closing. Brooke reveals that her current project - one of many - is to attempt to open a restaurant. Tracy is both convinced that the idea is doomed, but eager to help out both as a sign of sisterly bonding and as a way to get more material for her writing.

What I like about the Baumbach/Gerwig pairing is that Gerwig seems to soften Baumbach's bitterness and give his movies a more self-aware slant. In a non-Gerwig movie, the director might have made Brooke the sympathetic protagonist. But here, we see Brooke through Tracy's eyes, and she's the butt of the movie's jokes. Brooke is sort of scarily-accurate - the friend we all have whose refusal to follow-through on anything made them interesting in their twenties but increasingly hot-mess-resembling in their thirties. And yet, by sheer force of personality, Brooke and her ilk are able to scrape by and move from job to job,  relationship to relationship, social circle to social circle, life plan to life plan. In Brooke's eyes, she's still the college student with all of life's possibilities in front of her - or at least, that's what she tells herself to avoid a complete freak out. But Tracy and her college-freshman friends - convinced that it's only a matter of (not very much) time before their genius is discovered - look at Brooke with a mixture of admiration and fear. She's admirably still fighting their fight - except it's a fight that the wide-eyed freshman are sure they'll have wrapped up by graduation.

Lola Kirke is a real find as Tracy. She imbues Tracy with a familiar mix of too-cool-for-school and no-idea-what-the-hell-she-is-doing-at-life. She came to New York looking for her big New York moment, and like magic, her step-sister Brooke is a walking, talking New York moment. Kirke is really great here, and does a nice job of showing Tracy's gradual hardening as she grapples with whether to beat 'em or join 'em (as all college freshmen do). Gerwig, meanwhile, shows a previously-unseen manic energy - creating a memorable character in Brooke: a self-absorbed, self-delusional whirlwind. She'ss outwardly indestructible, but inwardly likely barely holding it together at any given moment.

The movie starts out as wryly funny, but edges closer and closer to all-out farce as it progresses. An extended sequence in which Tracy and Brooke (with Tracy's friend and his jealous girlfriend in tow) take a trip to Greenwich, CT to visit Brooke's rich, now-married ex-fiance (who's married to Brooke's nemesis, no less), devolves into a rapid-fire comedy of errors that is oftentimes laugh out loud hilarious.

It really is interesting, because MISTRESS AMERICA almost feels like a direct mash-up of Frances Ha and Baumbach's other 2015 film, While We're Young. But this film's manic screwball energy is what distinguishes it. At the same time, it's yet another film in which Baumbach explores generational themes. But where While We're Young sometimes felt misguided in its portrayal of twenty-something free-spirits, MISTRESS AMERICA, I think, hits at some essential truth about what it's like to be 18 vs. 30. That crushing feeling of being the same person, basically, but with less time and less options and more failure under your belt.

Aside from all that, this is the second Baumbach-Gerwig collaboration where I've just really dug the aesthetics. As with Frances Ha, there's a pulsating energy to this film that captures New York and its essence. Chalk up some of that to the mood-setting direction, chalk up some of it to the great music choices and score.

Baumbach seems to be making a real play these days to be the modern-day Woody Allen behind the camera, with Gerwig seemingly the neurosis-ridden intellectual heir to the characters that Allen so often played in his movies. The two have a powerful creative collaboration going, and this is a fine sophomore effort from them. More, please.

My Grade: A-

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