“Mistress America” is another witty New Yorker comedy from Noah Baumbach, and it is as acute and amusing as you can expect from him. While its two heroines are not that likable as we get to know more about their superficial sides, the development of their incidental relationship is observed with intimate and incisive moments of silly but recognizable human behaviors, and the result is a delightful lightweight comedy to enjoy.
Lola Kirke, who previously played a minor but crucial supporting character in “Gone Girl” (2014), plays Tracy Fishko, a young woman who has just begun her first year in the Barnard College of New York City. Like many other freshman students around her, she is eager to take the first step for her writing career in the near future, but things turn out to be not as exciting as she hoped. She is often bored by her classes, and she is also disappointed to learn that her recent short story is not accepted by some exclusive literary student club in the college. As she befriends her fellow student Tony (Matthew Shear) and spends more time with him, it seems possible that they can be more than friends, but then he begins a relationship with Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) before Tracy is more active about her feelings toward him.
Meanwhile, Tracy gets acquainted with Brooke Cardines (Greta Gerwig) through Tracy’s divorced mother (Kathryn Erbe), who is soon going to marry Brooke’s father. Thanks to her future stepsister, Tracy has a fun evening, and she also perceives that Brooke can be an inspiration for her next short story to submit. Brooke may be cool and confident as a lively girl on the surface, but it is apparent to us and Tracy that Brooke has been stuck in her wandering period for years; she did not go to college just because she did not feel any need for it, and now she is entering her thirties with no certain future ahead of her.
It turns out Brooke has been planning her own restaurant project, but it is rather doubtful whether she will be able to pull it off or not. Her restaurant idea may be feasible, but she does not put any serious consideration on how to develop it practically. While she manages to draw some investment fund through her current boyfriend, the place where her restaurant is supposed to be built does not look that good, and there also comes a serious setback later thanks to her thoughtless behavior.
And Brooke does not see how silly and pathetic she looks to others, as Tracy correctly observes in her writing (“She could see the world with painful accuracy, but she couldn’t see herself or her fate.”). You may be entertained for a while as she talks about many things including her Twitter activity, but then you can see through her banal words within a few minutes. When she happens to be confronted by an old schoolmate who was bullied by her during their school years, she is so self-absorbed that she is utterly oblivious to her schoolmate’s deep resentment toward her, and we cannot help but roll our eyes as watching this embarrassing encounter.
Later in the story, Brooke and Tracy go outside the city along with Tony and Nicolette for visiting the house belonging to Brooke’s ex-friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and her husband Dylan (Michael Chernus), who was once Brooke’s boyfriend. Because they become rich due to an idea originally conceived by Brooke, Brooke thinks they owe her a lot, but Mamie-Claire does not agree with her, so the situation becomes more awkward for everyone in the house as time goes by. While this sequence sways in one direction or another with the increasing unpredictability of screwball comedy, the actors are quick and spontaneous in their exchanges, and we keep getting small unexpected laughs as their characters try to deal with their strained circumstance.
Despite her unlikable aspects, Brooke comes to us as a distinctive character to watch thanks to the droll performance by Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay with the director Noah Baumbach. As an engaging actress with natural charm, Gerwig smoothly handles many comic scenes in the film such as when Brooke and Tracy visit a psychic to get any useful advice for Brooke’s imminent trouble at one point. She hits right notes in her character’s deadpan response during that scene, and we are amused by how Brooke seriously interprets the psychic’s words.
On the opposite, Lola Kirke complements her co-star as an insecure girl who is no better than her friend. While surely charmed by Brooke, Tracy also wants to get more writing materials from Brooke for her own benefit, and Kirke did a good job of conveying to us her character’s anxiety and frustration behind her detached face. Like any young aspiring writers, Tracy wants to be recognized by others as soon as possible, and her ambition naturally comes first before her friendship with Brooke.
Following “France Ha” (2012) and “While We’re Young” (2014), “Mistress America” is the third chapter of Baumbach’s unofficial New York trilogy. While they are loosely connected with each other through their common subjects as well as their urban background, they can be viewed individually as separate works, and they have each own funny moments generated from their characters’ understandable human flaws. Usually feeling unhappy and discontent, they are not so sure about what will be next for them as spinning around here and there, but they make a little progress in the end while growing up a bit – and I guess that is how things change for anyone.