(Noah Baumbach, 2015)
Screwball. I have read this film called a screwball comedy. But really, aside from a dominant female protagonist and some lightning-fast repartee, it doesn't have much screwball about it at all.
It is a sort of a farce, wrapped up in a character study (or two).
When Tracy (Lola Kirke, excellent) finds herself lonely and miserable at college in Manhattan, she follows her mother's advice and calls up Brooke (Gerwig), who will become her step-sister after their parents imminent marriage. Brooke is an energetic, creative young woman about town and jack-of-all-trades, teaching a cycling class, interior decorating, singing with a band, tutoring children inmates. She is also deeply pretentious and self-absorbed. Tracy finds herself fascinated and energised by this young woman, and resolves to aid her in her plan to persuade her ex-boyfriend to invest in her new restaurant project.
The first act rattles along when it should be light and frothy. Baumbach chops up scenes and there is always lots happening - we see Tracy's first weeks at college over the credits, then her introduction to Brooke's world is a blur of places and people. Despite this Gerwig makes Brooke a magnificently realistic monster - funny and clever but desperate and selfish at the same time. Her solipsism is made bearable by her wit and capacity for saying unbelievably oblivious things. Tracy's other world - a college where the literary society is a big deal and her roommate is a bitch - is vividly sketched in, the '80s cuts on the soundtrack (and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips' score) recalling The Rules of Attraction and a slew of '80s movies.
Mistress America is full of great lines and character beats throughout but it only really kicks into high gear with the central comic sequence in the third act, when Brooke and her "posse" arrive at her exes house and she tries to pitch her restaurant to him and his wife (who happens to be her ex-best friend and sometime "nemesis"). Here Baumbach orchestrates the behaviour of eight characters through a few brilliant scenes and conversations, complete with mini-arcs and climaxes, and hilarious throughout. Just as in While We're Young (released before but completed after this film) he teases themes without ever really properly investigating any. So Mistress America is about friendship and inspiration, creativity and generational conflict. But only a bit. Really it's about the brilliance of Greta Gerwig. And the music of Hot Chocolate.