Published Aug 20, 2015Since 2013's Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach has been on a roll by focusing on the generational divide between Generation X and Millennials. His newest film, Mistress America, completes a sort of thematic trilogy of youth, along with Frances Ha and While We're Young, by looking ahead at what's to come: the not-yet-defined post-Millennial group of young people who will start university in a few weeks. Mistress America is a splendid cap to this part of Baumbach's career, and features a career-best turn from his co-writer and partner, Greta Gerwig.
Playing a character worlds removed from Frances Halladay, Gerwig is electric as Brooke, a whirlwind force of nature and instant New York socialite icon. Just as impressive is newcomer Lola Kirke (sister of Jemima Kirke from Girls) as Tracy, a college freshman at Columbia University, wide-eyed and green without being too precocious. The two women meet when Tracy learns her mother is engaged to Brooke's father, and Brooke takes Tracy under her wing into the world of New York's high society. From there, the differences between Tracy's generation and Brooke's are exposed in a comedy of errors, complete with Baumbach's usual ratatat screwball zingers, but with a more empathetic eye than his previous films.
There's a generous amount of time spent with Tracy in the first act of the film before she meets Brooke, establishing the campus and Tracy's group of friends, including a boy she likes (although he has a girlfriend). Rather than making fun of failed attempts at intellectualism and try-too-hard-twee attitudes, Baumbach frames the proceedings with a warm optimism, especially after the nihilistic shrug of this spring's While We're Young (where Gerwig wasn't on hand for the script). Baumbach has always focused on the lives of upper-class intellectuals, but by turning his focus to the ground-zero of this characterization along with all the insecurities that go along with that age, he becomes a more inviting, less prickly filmmaker than the guy who made Greenberg five years ago. Call him the Linklater of rich white New Yorkers.
While he borrowed from early Truffaut on Frances Ha and lifted cues from '70s Woody Allen in While We're Young, here Baumbach goes full Lubitsch: Mistress America is a modern screwball comedy, complete with a stagey, theatrical set piece that starts about halfway through the film and becomes hypnotic as it keeps going and going, blending vaudeville-style gags, biting class commentary, complex blocking and a hundred moving pieces.
Brooke plans to open a trendy new restaurant in Williamsburg but needs more money, so she and Tracy, along with Tracy's school friends, take a road trip to Brooke's rich ex-boyfriend's house to borrow cash. It turns out he's married to her former best friend, and tensions fly as everyone runs from room to room and in and out of the frame. It's all very reminiscent of Lubitsch's backstage comedy To Be Or Not To Be, while remaining entirely modern thanks to Baumbach's observational eye.
Gerwig, meanwhile, is simply on fire here, with one of the most memorable entrances into a film in recent memory. She relishes the opportunity to play Queen of New York for a brisk 90 minutes, and crafts a performance for the ages, blending showy theatricality with an underlying sense of melancholy and insecurity, a socialite who hangs out with famous artists and always has a bottle of wine ready in her loft apartment.
Few people expected much from Baumbach at this point in his career, but Mistress America is one of the great coming-of-age films, a splendid coda to his recent looks at the Millennial generation. Much as the film turns to the new school with a sense of optimism, it will be interesting to see where the creative partnership between Gerwig and Baumbach goes from here. As summer comes to a close, this is one last excellent treat.