I’ve found Noah Baumbach to be a hit-and-miss director, but his two team-ups with Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha! and now Mistress America are his best two films. Let’s hope they don’t break up.
Again this film casts Gerwig as a free spirit on the loose in New York City. In fact, the Big Apple is just as much a character as anyone else in Mistress America, from the Morningside Heights of Columbia to Times Square, where Gerwig’s Brooke lives. “I never knew anyone who lived in Times Square!” her new friend says. When I think about it, I haven’t either, but Gerwig says she got off the bus from New Jersey and found her home.
Her opposite in this film is Lola Kirke as a lonely freshman at Barnard. She’s the smart, pretty girl I would have gone over the moon for, but she’s clinging to a melancholy, unable to fit in. She wants to join a snobbish literary society–“They serve wine and cheese and carry briefcases,” she marvels, and befriends a boy who also wants to join.
Her mother is remarrying, and the man has a daughter who lives in New York. Kirke is advised to call her, and she finally does. Brooke is about 30, a whirling dervish of activity, who treats Kirke to the night of her life, ending with a sleepover in Gerwig’s commercial loft. They immediately bond as sisters, and Gerwig shares with her her dream–to open a restaurant called “Mom’s.”
As with Frances Ha!, American Mistress is very much a movie about the relationship between two women, even more so here. There are slight echoes of romance–Gerwig’s boyfriend is in Greece, “betting against the country,” but the film is more about their friendship. This film sends the Bechdel Test up in flames, as almost the entire film is these two talking, mostly about subjects other than men.
The climax of the film takes place in the large Greenwich, Connecticut home of Gerwig’s nemesis, the woman who stole her t-shirt idea, her fiance, and her cats. But she needs money for her restaurant, so a motley crew heads into the enclave of the one percent and a mini-screwball comedy takes place, with Gerwig pitching her ex, who is interested. “I’m not just an asshole bankrolling your fitness plan,” he barks at his wife, Gerwig’s nemesis.
Things take a sour turn when Gerwig finds out that her father will not be marrying Kirke’s mother, and then even worse when the extremely jealous girlfriend of Kirke’s male friend reveals to Gerwig that her new “sister” has written a short story about her, warts and all.
The character of Brooke can be added to the pantheon of great New York characters, like Holly Golightly and Annie Hall. She is effervescent, her face shining like a moon, her enthusiasm unbridled and infectious. Certainly it must be Gerwig’s contribution the script that has a young woman not chasing after a man but a business, which in itself is a reflection of a dream.
The script also sparkles with many laugh out loud lines. Here are just a few:
“It’s funny how a guy who studies rocks can be so into Jesus.”
“In L.A. I qualify as well-read.”
“I heard that television was the new novel.”
If you love New York, or just love smartly-written, well-acted films, go see Mistress America.