Greta Gerwig has a talent for being in the moment yet behaving as if she were watching herself perform. In her good movies, she’s self-sufficient, requiring an audience but suggesting that they just happen to be there while she’s doing her thing. Her collaborations with partner Noah Baumbach have created women I haven’t seen in movies too often. Dizzy, intoxicated with words and Manhattan, Mistress America is her best vehicle to date. This romantic comedy isn’t as satisfying as 2013’s Frances Ha, but as a distillation of Gerwig’s chops it’s the funkiest movie of the year.
A freshman at Columbia University, Tracy Fishko has the awkwardness of an eighteen-year-old still molding herself but contained enough to keep her counsel. A large part of Mistress America‘s charm is watching Lola Kirke watching the other characters. This budding writer’s ambition is to publish a story in the literary magazine, run by young men and women of grave mien and graver briefcases. A curly-haired, dim student with a penchant for screwdrivers named Tony (Matthew Shear) entertains her sexually until she stumbles into him holding another girl’s hand (Jasmine Cephas Jones as the dour, jealous Nicolette gets the movie’s biggest laughs, one of which involves pasta and an anatomical part). Despondent, she takes her mother’s advice and offers to meet her would-be stepsister Brooke in Times Square. “Welcome to the Great White Way!” Brooke bellows, descending a staircase.
How Baumbach loves his actress. That shot, with Gerwig’s dress flapping and her grin so side it’s a parody of delight, is the kind of would-be starmaking sequence that Billy Wilder lavished on Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, an apt analogy, for Baumbach and Wilder are better wordsmiths than visual artists. Tracy is the ideal foil for the garrulous Brooke, who’s in the middle of opening a restaurant with an offscreen Greek named Stavros. For easy cash she tutors West Siders on the SAT. Flitting from bars to brunches, she verges on ossifying into a Holly Golightly for the Buzzfeed set, but Baumbach’s framing and Gerwig’s performance focuses on Brooke’s imminent collapse – a collapse that Baumbach doesn’t invite the audience to chuckle at.
Crawling with life around the edges, Mistress America loves watching its characters gyrate (I should emphasize: don’t treat Mistress America as a documentary, for the Brookes in the New York I know don’t have the luxury of waiting on Greek boyfriends to pay their rent on apartments bigger than studios). When the landlord changes the locks to Brooke’s apartment, she can rely on the downstairs neighbor’s fire escape. There’s a guy who “wrote a junky bio of Derrida.” A book club for pregnant woman meet weekly to discuss William Faulkner’s The Hamlet. The movie’s peak – a visit to Brooke’s ex to squeeze him for dough with Tracy, Tony, and even Nicolette – turns, thanks to Jennifer Lame’s editing, into a whirling farce; it’s like a chorus of frogs on lily pads calling and responding (Dean Wareham, who co-composed the obtrusive electronic soundtrack, is weak as a nosy neighbor).
Earlier this year While We’re Young proved Baumbach has no talent for the about faces that Hollywood wags regard as epiphanies. What I’ll remember about Mistress America are the zany lines and Gerwig’s take on them: “It’s weird how a person who likes rocks can also be into Jesus”; “What would you get if you wanted, like, a nice pasta?” It helps that she had a hand in writing her own gags. If American comedies aren’t giving her the roles, then good on Baumbach and Gerwig for creating their own.