The Peculiar Moxie of Baumbach and Gerwig’s Mistress America

Mistress-America

Mistress America
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Opens August 14

In the classical Hollywood screwball comedies that Mistress America echoes in the velocity and verve of go-getter Brooke Cardinas, you might have called it moxie. But whatever you call it, it’s not entirely clear it’ll work for Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who talks a terrific game, somehow managing even to air doubts as a kind of confident confusion, as she tries mightily to get money to start a comfort-food restaurant called “Mom’s.” Barnard student Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is put in touch with Brooke, soon to be linked to her as a stepsister; lonely in college, bonded only with another reject from the hoity-toity literary society, she looks in wonder at her older counterpart’s whirligigs as if constantly asking, “You can do that?”

Part of the enjoyment of Mistress America is watching Tracy’s perspective deepen, even as she doesn’t always betray it, but part also comes from feeling Brooke as a comic figure turning real with the complications of life. The lapidary one-liners of a Baumbach film always help in putting hilarious captions on character and action, but more than ever it’s the moxie of Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, that pushes through a wonderfully unpredictable personality that’s at once familiar and strange, a striver for whom the film is constantly and fascinatingly selecting its cues on how to view her. In a way she’s a presumptuous inverse to her creation in Frances Ha; in others, she doesn’t seem to add up entirely; but Baumbach and Gerwig keep things in chaotic motion, sending characters hither and thither in New York.

With the shift to Connecticut, home to a key frenemy of Brooke, Mistress America throws all of its comic elements into a box and shakes it anew, setting up an oddly stagey farce for Brooke’s latest scheme. Gauging how to make it versus how to be an ok person, Tracy meanwhile comes into her own (oddly, she shares a last name with Baumbach’s assistant on Greenberg) as Brooke, initially framed as remembered and mythologized, struggles to land on her feet. With the eccentric and yet purposeful Mistress America, Baumbach and Gerwig add another chapter to their exceedingly fruitful collaboration, intricate and thoughtful even in its semi-successes.

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