“I wish we were just going off to war. Or retiring. I wish I was just retiring after a lifetime of hard labor.” This is a movie quote from 1995: In writer-director Noah Baumbach’s debut, Kicking and Screaming, a codependent group of young East Coast literati are stuck in post-grad purgatory. They dress up in oversized sports jackets, reference Kafka, and worry about whether or not they should be worrying about their future.
“I wish we lived in feudal times, when your position couldn’t change and you just had to be happy with where you are.” That is from 2015, from Baumbach’s latest, Mistress America, wherein a daffy upper-crust faux-hemian visits an old frenemy in Connecticut, then moves to L.A. because she didn’t open a restaurant. Baumbach, a Vassar alumnus and product of two New York writers, isn’t one to switch lanes.
Baumbach has been going to the same well for 20 years, throughout which he’s often returned with little new to report and, being the habitual recycler of material that he is, without much variation in how he reports it. Few filmmakers can do this so well. Decades of gazing into the human navel has made Baumbach a leading scholar in the paralysis of potential—a condition rooted in the crippling egocentrism and inflated sense of import that plague many a bright-eyed bon vivant.
With Mistress America, we’re back in his hometown of New York because life is art; establishing shots of busy intersections and street pedestrians abound. Our viewpoint in Baumbach’s buddy comedy is via Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman in college who reports to her mom she “doesn’t know anyone at the party, all the time.” She’s in the school’s writing program and is applying to a Dead Poets Society stand-in; members prance about campus in the appropriate garb.
Tracy’s mom pushes her to spend time with Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsister-to-be who lives nearby, and their inaugural meeting commences in an inconspicuous locale known as Times Square. The girl knows how to make an entrance—Brooke descends from on high atop a neon-lit staircase and moseys right on down the frame, the shot held about six seconds longer than it might have been under someone else’s direction. Especially in the face of gaudy introductions, decisions to awkwardly time interactions like these make Baumbach and Gerwig so instinctively, astutely funny.
Kirke’s role is primarily a functional one and it’s a break in style for Baumbach. She’s easy to ride along with: Her footing is soft but firm and she carries a comedy stick modest enough to not belabor Gerwig’s, but big enough to avoid getting squashed. She’s like the Ellen Page to Ellen Page’s bobble-head doll, even donning a renegades-of-frump, Juno-like costume. But Baumbach’s main characters historically are dominant images of his overall portrait, and her position on the periphery, a position made clearer by her voiceover—also atypical; he once said it was “cheating”—is the only gripe I have here.
Mistress America is so far Baumbach’s most vivacious output, fiercer in its convictions and sense of self than anything to come before. He treats it with equal affection for his past films, but is less protective—it’s gassed with a smiling fuck-you attitude, revved up by an ’80s Euro synth-pop score from husband-wife duo Dean Wareheim and Britta Phillips, who provided the music for Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale in 2005, arguably his magnum opus.
He’s squirrelier with his sets here, too, incorporating louder visual elements into his character-based, dialogue-heavy wheelhouse. In Mistress America’s second act, he conducts a rich sequence at the mansion of Brooke’s estranged nemesis (Heather Lind) with the frazzled tiptoeing of a cat on a hot tin roof. (The resoundingly theatrical set piece comes complete with a shout-out to Tennessee Williams himself.)
While Baumbach’s specific brand of human flaw has kept a similar bone structure since 1995, it did get a revitalizing facelift in Gerwig. She bounded into his life in 2010 when he cast her in Greenberg, where she bestowed her trademark buoyancy onto the otherwise labored effort. Gerwig shakes the brooding malcontent from him without losing the social witticisms that forgive those traits. It’s his second collaboration with her as both co-writer and co-star, following his 2012 quintessential love letter to New York (and to Gerwig), Frances Ha. But the similarities end about there, save for Gerwig pacing at the gates of adulthood and rattling off bursts of priceless non-sequitur quirk.
Characters like Brooke and Frances are sometimes shoved under a manic pixie dream girl umbrella, now the go-to classification for any female character under 32 with an iota of independence and a penchant for pluck. But the mark of a successful pixie is determined by the dream from which she’s conjured—a male character’s dream, specifically. She has one job: to infuse a male protagonist with purpose by convincing him his life has meaning because she’s worth saving (which she’s in desperate need of, as anyone can see by the average pixie’s terrible hand-eye coordination and habit of falling down).
But Brooke is no manic pixie and she’s certainly nobody’s mistress. Baumbach’s characters don’t exist for anyone but their maker, who’s on a cosmic quest to uncover what leather jackets really mean. Still, as exhausting as his characters can be, both agonizing in their belligerence and endearing in their complete oblivion, the adoration with which he writes them and the ferocious wit for which he’s revered make Baumbach one of contemporary cinema’s greatest character sketchers—and Mistress America falls right in line.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Release Date: August 14, 2015