“That's the kind of person she is”: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

Occasionally I'll settle in for a movie I originally had no intention of seeing. When I saw the trailer for Noah Baumbach's Mistress America a few weeks ago, and after giving my gag reflex a minute to settle down, I relegated it to the "NOPE" bin. 

Yet sometimes the itch to just get out and go to a movie needs to be scratched, and so it was that I found myself losing my mumblecore virginity this weekend at the geriatric matinee showing of Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's latest collaboration.

About 15 minutes into the film, I was faced with a decision: this was either going to be agony for me, or it was going to be hilarious. I opted for hilarious, since I really wasn't in the mood to agonize over anything at 3:15 on a Sunday afternoon. Mistress America concerns Tracy (Lola Kirk), a college freshman with all the personality of a Graham cracker (and the brown sweaters to match) who ships off to college in New York only to find herself having a rather glum time. Her roommate Ruth isn't exactly the bee’s knees, her English seminars are dominated by airheads for whom the Renaissance evokes images of plush upholstery and jewelry, and the cute boy (Matthew Shear) with the good graces to wake her up during a 12-person roundtable on Antigone has recently started dating the impertinently catty Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). 

Lest you think I'm making this up. I'm never making this up.

Lest you think I'm making this up. I'm never making this up.

(Let me stop right here and explain something to you. Tony, the love interest, is first introduced wearing a tweed jacket and asking Tracy if she wants to chill at the new Froyo place after bonding for a moment over their both wanting to submit pieces to their school's prestigious literary magazine. The early chapters of Mistress America belabor the Life of the Typical Snake Person College Student with the subtlety of a frying pan to the head. I was ready to tune out, but once Baumbach and co-screenwriter Gerwig introduce some characters from their own generation, the wrinkles iron themselves out.)

Tracy enters a short story for publication in the Mobius, one of those mythical undergraduate bulletins that no doubt has decades of backstory lying on the cutting room floor. She's rejected, and spared a ceremonial pie to the face (don't ask). With college failing to live up to her expectations, Tracy seeks counsel from her mother, recently divorced and more-recently engaged again. Mom suggests a call to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), Tracy's stepsister-to-be. In a moment of late-night desperation over a pan of fries, Tracy gives Brooke a call. No answer; back to the saturated fats.

Then, not even a minute later, Brooke calls back. "Hi, I just received a missed call from this number?" Without even seeing this woman yet you know this movie is about to either turn around or capsize entirely, depending on your opinion of movies that aim for authenticity in their portrayals of all the worst aspects of the young and trendy. Tracy agrees to meet her quasi-sis in Times Square, "where all the cool people live, right?" (That wasn't an exact quote but that's the gist of it; Mistress America is eminently quotable but stealing all the best one-liners for this review would be churlish of me.)

In the middle of a dazzling Times Sqaure, Tracy hears Brooke beckoning from yon staircase above. Brooke descends majestically, like the lady of the evening in some classical Hollywood production. She also proceeds to run out of words of halfway down the stairs. Here's one of the first instances of Baumbach's great strength in matching his written comedy with visual humor. He has a good sense of when to let the camera keep rolling to capture the everyday awkwardness that twenty- and thirty-sometimes try to conceal in stride. Later on we'll get a taste of his knack for blocking in a scene that caps the film's most unabashedly farcical act. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Brooke, who never went to college and carries around her ambitions like a parent carries around graduation photos in their wallet, ready to show off their proud children at a moment's notice, sweeps Tracy off her feet. Brooke introduces Tracy to a Manhattan nightlife full of excitement and possibility. Brooke talks like nobody's listening and "Twitters" away her thoughts, aware of the need to promote what she's selling but unaware of what that is exactly. In Brooke Tracy finds the kind of friend she had been told to expect in college but hasn't found yet. It's also in Brooke that Tracy finds a subject worthy of a publishable story.

When she isn't leading SoulCycle classes or tutoring middle schoolers for the SAT ("I didn't score high enough on my own SATs to teach subject tests to high schoolers"), Brooke is dreaming about opening a restaurant with Stavros, the offscreen Greek man she hates "except for the fact I'm love with him." Tracy can spot the downward trajectory of this plan from a mile away, and even after Brooke nails a meeting with some presumably benevolent investors Tracy gets to work writing her literary version of Brooke: a clueless, aging Manhattanite who doesn't realize she's hauling her own rotting corpse around with her everywhere.

Brooke and Tracy—and Tony and Nicolette—are exasperating characters. Just when we start to wonder whether to be amused or offended (is this really want Baumbach and Gerwig think our generation is like?), the four go on a road trip to Brooke's nemesis's mansion in Greenwich (where else would it be?). When they enter this Crate and Barrel catalogue on a hill, the film enters the realm of straight-up farce, beginning with a Faulkner book club for pregnant yuppies and concluding with Brooke discovering Tracy's story about her. The changing up of genres is intentional, to a point. As Baumbach tells us in a recent Film Comment interview:

Recently, when I'm working on scripts and then during shooting, I've been more conscious of a kind of flexibility. If I find the movie going in a direction, to let it go there and see if the movie can hold it. Once we got to the house, it felt like this would be a pleasurable way to go. Not just locationwise, but some new element in the movie that would change the way we look at Brooke and Tracy. And it was a way for the movie, in its own way, structurally, to change the way you're watching it.

The decision to run with the farce mostly works. Here's where the film's best jokes reside, where the actors get to flex their most off-the-wall delivery of lines too zany by even the first act's standards. Halfway through this show Brooke gets some shattering news about her dad's marriage to Tracy's mom, but the entry of a new character—Brooke's former love interest, now married to nemesis—interrupts the flow and introduces a few too many bad line readings of weed jokes into the mix. Thankfully things are kept afloat by an Asian lawyer who gets stuck in the middle of Brooke and Tracy's drama because her husband still hasn't shown up with the car; she's a stupidly brilliant addition to a set piece already bursting at the seams with characters and her presence pays off magnificently by the end.

The farce turns the characters, if only momentarily, into vessels for comedy, which to my mind counts as a point in the film's favor. Read as a straight-up character play, there's nary a good person to be found here. Baumbach and Gerwig can't resist the urge to affix a zinger onto the end of every tender moment (for the record, I probably wouldn't be able to exercise any self control either). Brooke is oblivious to her bad habits and worse behavior towards the people around her; Tracy fails to add much flavor to the story but insists on just sitting there annoying you, much like how Graham crackers get stuck in your teeth and require the aid of dental instruments to dislodge. By momentarily turning their characters into pawns in a sitcomesque scheme, Baumbach and Gerwig give us permission to view the cast at a bit more of a distance and to ponder their social media-ready witticisms in a different light.

Eventually Tracy gets dislodged from the relationship she's built up with Brooke, and only then do we see how the bonds of sisterly love had been simmering under the surface. During the farce segment, someone calls Tracy out on her lack of empathy, and while its true that this deficiency keeps the audience at bay from its protagonist, the same can be said for every other character in Baumbach and Gerwig's universe. Brooke and her contemporaries think they're better than Tracy's generation because they understand the need to be empathetic. In reality, Brooke and her kind only ever express empathy because that's what decent people are supposed to do—empathy, by their understanding, never entails showing love to the other.

We see in the characters' cavalier attitudes towards religion a similar phenomenon. There's no disgust or hatred of the Church that older generations in these kinds of stories might bear; they look at religious things askance not because they've been wronged but because they fail to see how religion can offer anything to help ease their 21st-century anxieties. They find alternatives in cultish exercise regimes and exclusive literary circles, but these groups amount to nothing more than stimulants for their egocentricity. Brooke, Tracy, et al. believe that the only way to happiness, fulfillment, or whatever is through satisfying their own desires, others' be damned.

Ultimately Tracy gets what she wants but the loss of Brooke proves too much to bear. There's a reconciliation of sorts, accompanied by a few more choice one-liners, and a resolution that feels more earned than contrived. The magnificent, speechless Brooke who descended that Times Square staircase at the beginning of the film is every bit as flawed as Tracy's first impressions led her to believe. By film's end, Tracy finds that embracing Brooke's imperfections rather than sneering at them is infinitely more gratifying than she could have imagined.