Baumbach Triumphs Again With "Mistress America"

The vaudevillian set piece at the center of Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America” is one for the books, an initially inconspicuous sequence that sneakily becomes a construct of countless comedic stylings. But instead of just tossing viewers a grab bag of gags, Baumbach and co-writer-slash-leading-lady Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) manage to homogenize them, artfully bridging acts one and three while conjuring tons of laughs in the process.

Genre busting is nothing new for the “While We’re Young” writer-director. He and real-life girlfriend Gerwig have whipped up a few rightful indie smashes, reliably mining 21st century social mores for new ways of telling old stories. But neither has made anything quite like “Mistress America” before, both a sisterly tweak on “Step Brothers” and an eminently quotable look at the vast differences between millennials born just ten years apart.

Lola Kirke (“Gone Girl”) leads as Tracy, an unsociable New York City college freshman. Obviously aware of the irony of being lonely in a city of 10 million, she’s only able to make friends (a couple) by accident. Friend one is Tony, an unassuming, bespectacled classmate and fellow writer who seems like a solid romantic prospect – until he turns up with an overbearing girlfriend.

Circumstantial friend number two comes from her mom’s impending marriage. The prospect of a stepsister-to-be unlocks something in Tracy she didn’t know was there, leading to a lovably awkward first hang out, followed by many more.

Brooke (Gerwig) is the anti-Tracy, a tangle of confidence and insecurity, determination and despair, emotions cranked to eleven. As a fledgling restaurateur, she sees the future she wants even if she has no idea how to achieve it and wallows in romantic regrets that no one around her could ever understand.

Tracy’s fondness for Brooke is caught somewhere between awe and envy. When she starts writing about her new sister, it’s clearly the strongest reaction Tracy has had to anyone or anything in a long time, putting her on a path towards academic success and personal failure that’s predictable but wholly satisfying.

This all dovetails into the aforementioned second act, one that sees our two leads turn up as uninvited guests at the house of Brooke’s ex, Dylan (Michael Chernus). Dylan’s wife, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) is less than enthused by their appearance, even less so at Brooke’s ploy for restaurant financing.

More than anything, Tracy and Brooke are great characters played by actresses who are so in tune with their parts and each other that the movie can’t help but sing along with them.

Although not as accessible as “While We’re Young,” “Mistress America” is still a fantastic movie made even more special in its proximity to its predecessor. Following “While We’re Young” by just 6 months, Baumbach has pulled off the rare feat of releasing two wonderful movies in a single calendar year – two dissimilar but deeply rewarding works.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: August 14, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)