PARK CITY, UT: “I could only agree with her,” Tracy says of Brooke, in the opening moments of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. “It was too much fun to agree with her.” Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman, failing (and frankly, not trying all that hard) to fit in at Barnard. Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is her older future sister-in-law, a whirling dervish, jazzy and odd and prone to non sequitur. She’s comfortable and confident and all the things that Tracy’s not, so it’s easy to see how Tracy both idolizes and idealizes her. If that were all that was happening in Mistress America, it’d still be worth seeing; it’s got a fast pace and screwball spirit, and is the closest thing Baumbach’s done to pure comedy since his peerless debut picture Kicking and Screaming. But there’s a lot more going on here than just laughs.
In discussing the film after its Sundance debut Saturday night, director and co-writer Baumbach said that he and his co-writer (or, as he put it, “my partner in film, and in life”) Gerwig were aiming to emulate a kind of “subgenre of movies of people who were taken out of their comfortable environments, and maybe it’s a person that takes them there.” Gerwig concurred: “Like Something Wild and After Hours and kind of like, being pulled into this crazy thing, and there’s a motorcycle.” And there’s no question that their film captures the energy and danger of those pictures, from its who-knows narrative sense to its ’80s synth-pop score.
But they also seem, particularly in the first act that Tracy (as our surrogate) spends getting to know crazy Brooke, to be deconstructing the type of zizzy New York girl that Gerwig has often found herself playing. Call it what you will (Manic Pixie Dream Girl will do, if you’re so inclined), but Brooke does have a certain semi-contrived “wildness” that can too often seem like a (usually male) screenwriter’s construct. Baumbach and Gerwig’s smart script knows who else could construct that kind of a character: the woman herself.
And as is so often the case with a persona like that, it can only hold for so long before the real identity begins to reveal itself — as false, or terrified, or sensitive, or just plain awful. Gerwig’s Brooke reveals all of those sides of herself as the story continues, and not always voluntarily, so her self-awareness remains a question mark. How much of it is an act, and how much of it has been the act for so long now that it’s the real thing? The greatness of Gerwig’s performance lies in how reluctant she is to telegraph the answer to that question, yet you’ll walk away feeling like you know the answer. (The person sitting next to you may feel that way too — and have a completely different answer.)
It’s the kind of deliciously complicated female role that it sometimes feels like only a woman can cook up, and Gerwig said as much in the post-screening Q&A. “I did go to a women’s college, so I’m going to quote Virginia Woolf, but in A Room of One’s Own — which you all should read again — she says this thing, that only women know what women are like when they’re alone. And that’s why we need women writers, because men don’t know what we’re doing when they’re not there.”
All of which can make it sound as if Mistress America is a very serious-minded treatise on female identity or something, but this bears repeating: it’s very, very funny. Baumbach has always been a writer who builds his comic set pieces casually, lining up the pieces before you even realize what he’s up to, but he’s never done anything quite like the centerpiece sequence in a rich friend’s fancy-schmancy Connecticut home, which is a remarkable high-wire act of writing, directing, and playing; there are so many plates spinning at once, it’s a little dizzying, yet it keeps topping itself with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and inventively funny compositions. It’s screwball comedy, but with sliding-glass doors. (“We realized we were trying to make a farce in a house with sliding doors,” Gerwig joked. “Why did we get the Body Double house?”)
This is Baumbach and Gerwig’s third collaboration — one as director and actor (Greenberg), two in those roles and co-writing as well. They make a good team; she’s brought back a light touch that eluded some of his efforts in the 2000s, and he’s helped her find the right vehicles for her sui generis charisma. I’m not sure how long they can keep this up (it’s always a little nerve-racking when a creative partnership depends on a personal one), but here’s hoping they keep it together, because they’re doing the best work of either career together.
Mistress America plays this week at the Sundance Film Festival.