Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Gatsby For Our Age: Mistress America

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America.

Why doesn’t filmmaker Noah Baumbach get more love? Oh, the critics like him alright, more so of late, but the public doesn’t seem to. Yet since his debut with Kicking and Screaming (1995), he’s been putting out a steady and mostly consistent stream of smart, funny and appealing comedy/dramas that really reflect the way we live now. Yet the audience’s fancy seems to be tickled more by the artificial, hollow and hermetic likes of Wes Anderson’s output (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) than anything Baumbach has on offer. It’s their loss but if they would check out Baumbach’s latest movie Mistress America (the second film of his to be released in 2015 after While We’re Young), they would be in for a treat. This comedy of manners about a young woman’s attachment and involvement with her older, soon-to-be stepsister is a small, indelible gem.

As the movie begins, aimless Tracy (Lola Kirke), who’s just begun college, is encouraged to give  Manhattan-based Brooke (Greta Gerwig) a call. (Brooke's dad is all set to marry Tracy’s mom.) She does so reluctantly but after the two finally get together, Tracy is plunged into a unique adventure as she follows the flighty, fascinating Brooke all over the city and upstate. In the process of this journey, she learns something about herself and her fledgling writing abilities, even as she appropriates Brooke’s tumultuous existence as fodder for a short story she is submitting to her campus’s hoity-toity literary journal.

Mistress America is a fast moving film that barely stops to take a breath as it goes from one set piece to the next – but it grips you from the get go. Brooke’s persona (and Gerwig’s terrific performance) compels as, like Lola, you try to figure her out. Brooke however is hard to pin down: mercurial, kind, oblivious, vulnerable and even occasionally nasty in equal measure. It’s a very shaded role but never undermined by overacting or histrionics as a less delicate or skilled actor than Gerwig might have rendered it. (Gerwig was similarly riveting in Baumbach’s sublime Frances Ha (2012). She also co-wrote and co-produced Mistress America with Baumbach, who is her off-screen partner.) As Tracy, Kirke – who had a small but key role in Gone Girl – has a more passive, even recessive role to play but, as the Everywoman sitting back and examining and basking in Brooke’s antics, she is equally compelling, She’s highly romantic, assuming that Tony (Matthew Shear) the guy she likes – who is also submitting a story to the pretentious literary journal – is interested in her just because they hang about together. He’s not. But she’s not above manipulation, either, as she twists Brooke’s fact into (very thinly) disguised fiction. In that she bears strong similarities to While We’re Young’s budding filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver), who also callously used his older would-be mentor Josh (Ben Stiller) towards his own artistic ends. The two films, in fact, share genetic material as Mistress America flips the age difference of the previous film – While We’re Young was about older folk enthralled with the lives of younger ones – while otherwise sticking to that movie’s thematic outline. I’d argue though that While We’re Young, with its pat conclusion, rushed final third and underwritten key characters (Naomi Watts as Josh’s wife Cornelia; Amanda Seyfried as Adams’ girlfriend Darby) is more of an incomplete template for Mistress America, which rarely puts a foot wrong or veers off course.

 Cindy Cheung, Dean Wareham, Matthew Shear, Greta Gerwig, Michael Chernus & Heather Lind in Mistress America.

In fact, as it moves inexorably forward, it becomes clear that, consciously or not, Mistress America is a distaff  21st century take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as an observing, callow witness is slowly let into the rarefied world of a one of a kind (and sad) individual she’s never experienced in her life before. Yet, unlike Gatsby, Mistress America is also an often rollicking comedy, with a quick patter and literary wit particularly reminiscent of the late great writer – director Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story.) The complexly calibrated and uproarious scene where Tracy, Brooke, Tony and his pouty, jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) head off to the country home of Brooke's ex Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who is also Brooke’s former business partner, to retrieve the idea for a novelty t-shirt and attendant monies that Brooke is convinced Mamie-Claire stole from her is screwball comedy of the highest order. It evokes none other than the exquisitely timed and brilliantly played out Ale and Quail Hunting Club train sequence from The Palm Beach Story, which along with The Lady Eve is Sturges’ best film. No higher praise can be given.

There are the odd missteps: as when Brooke and Tracy are assailed by a bitter former university classmate of Brooke's who calls her out on the scarring meanness she displayed towards her so many years ago. But Baumbach – who sometimes displays coldness towards the odd character in his movies – isn’t on her side, suggesting that the classmate was bitter to begin with and should just move on and get over her negative emotions and bad feelings towards Brooke. Gerwig rescues that scene somewhat. as her shrugging indifference towards and mockery of the woman implies that there is much truth in the accusations. That’s a minor cavil as Mistress America otherwise lays bare a detailed and riveting world of twenty- and thirty-somethings who have no permanent roots – Brooke lives in a loft that is not supposed to be used as living quarters, and generally gets in and out of her place by fire escape – or real goals or ambitions. (The ubiquitous presence of social media and its numerous distracting attendant devices does not help focus them.) Tracy insists she wants to be a writer and the narration of her story in the film suggests she has talents in that field, but you never get the sense that writing is a great passion for her as much something she has stumbled into, perhaps the only thing she is actually good at. Nor do they have the wherewithal to follow their few (good) ideas through to completion when they’re not cutting corners and hurting others in their quest to realize them, as the impatient Brooke is wont to do. But Baumbach, for the most part, in his movies – including Mr. Jealousy (1997) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) – does not condemn them for their failings but merely remarks upon and sits back observing them and their foibles with great and generous affection. (Margot at the Wedding (2007), though quite good, is a rare barbed, scathing look at people behaving badly; Greenberg (2010), unfortunately, wallows in utter dislike and disregard for those same character types.) Wes Anderson, by comparison, always displays, at least, an underlying contempt for all his protagonists.

At a brisk 84 minutes, Mistress America is the perfect length – not going on for too long, nor too short as to fail to delve into all its myriad intense and/or nuanced characters. Like the finest pungent and memorable short stories – Mistress America is certainly the cinematic equivalent of one – it hooks you and doesn’t let you go.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He is currently teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute.

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