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Mistress America is director Noah Baumbach’s latest take on the trials and tribulations of the supposedly indecisive and perennially juvenile millennial generation. Thematically, Mistress America is very similar to Frances Ha, Baumbach’s 2013 collaboration with actress/writer/producer Greta Gerwig, who stars in both films. Frances Ha, shot in black-and-white and borrowing a musical riff from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, has more stylistic ambition than Mistress America, which at its best moments might be classified as a comedy of manners.
The film follows Tracy (Lola Kirke) in her freshman year at Barnard College. Tracy aspires to be a serious writer, but is not accepted into the school’s exclusive literary magazine. She makes a friend, Tony (Matthew Shear), another aspiring writer, but is surprised when their romantic potential is suddenly stifled by his choice to date someone else — in short, typical college stuff. Finding herself quite lonely, Tracy decides to call her mother’s fiancée’s daughter, a fellow New York City resident whom she has never met.
Brooke (Greta Gerwig), Tracy’s sister-to-be, is a college girl’s vision of cool. She lives in an illegal sublet, knows the boys in all the bands, has plans to open her own restaurant, and holds a seemingly endless number of side gigs to pay the rent. She’s full of advice for the younger and less wise woman, offering snippets like, “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” Crisis hits when Brooke’s boyfriend pulls his funding out of the restaurant and she must come up with a lot of money, fast. A motley crew of Brooke, Tracy, Tony, and Tony’s girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), make a pilgrimage to Greenwich to ask Brooke’s former fiancée Dylan (Michael Chernus) to act as an investor.
Baumbach is not particularly insightful in portraying the under-30 crowd. Tracy’s college angst is so liberal-arts run-of-the-mill that it only begs the question of why the smart kids are so boring. But when it comes to a slightly older scene, Baumbach more effectively uses contemporary social types to comedic advantage. Brooke’s ex is now married to her former friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who has the overly put-together look of a Greenwich housewife. Mamie-Claire and Dylan live in an impressive abode, funded by Dylan’s job at Goldman Sachs, although he’s quick to remind everyone that before he worked at Goldman’s he taught at Baruch. Only in New York.
Baumbach uses the Greenwich house like a stage set; characters pop in and out of static locations, their conflicts escalating to crisis points. No space seems big enough for the portly Dylan to escape the cloying Mamie-Claire, who constantly refers to their couples therapist. Dylan is entranced by his former flame Brooke, declaring, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.” Brooke tries to convince Dylan to give her money, while avoiding the jealous Mamie-Claire, who inherited (stole?) two of Brooke’s cats along with Dylan. Nicolette, jealous of Tracy, keeps a close eye on Tony. Tracy keeps a protective eye on Brooke. A pregnant member of Mamie-Claire’s book club waits for her husband to pick her up and becomes an unwitting interrupter of all the action. A crisis occurs when Nicolette hands Brooke a rather unflattering story Tracy has written. Suddenly the whole group turns on Tracy, accusing her of using and twisting Brooke’s life for her literary ambitions. Unfortunately, this plot turn refocuses the film on the type of dorm room discussions that are better had at 18 than distilled for theatrical release, and the best part of Mistress America draws to a close.
Both Frances Ha and Mistress America float by on the glorification of a small, privileged cadre of the millennial generation suffering from creative and existential angst and coming-of-age trials. Both films lack psychological authenticity, empathy, and nuanced characters. Unlike Brooke, people in their early 30s who have lived in New York for a decade working an endless round of low-paying and/or menial jobs typically do not constantly expound on how magical the city is. Brooke’s character does very briefly appear thoughtful and vulnerable towards the end of the film; however, the glamorized, isn’t-she-tragic-but-great lens through with Baumbach portrays his superficial leading lady obscures the difficulty and seriousness with which many 20- and 30-something New Yorkers struggle to carve out an artistic, or simply meaningful, existence here.
In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that Mistress America
takes the ingredients of common distress, including betrayal and debt, and treats them as food for laughs. Not even bereavement is spared. “I watched my mother die!” Brooke shouts to Tracy, while they are out dancing, and then changes the subject to frozen yogurt.
Lane is not troubled by this militant lightness, seeing it as a feature of a successful comedy. But it’s telling that the tone of Mistress is interpreted in wholly contradictory ways. Stephen Holden writes in the New York Times:
Far from romanticizing creativity and the artistic process, Mr. Baumbach’s films portray the world of painters, filmmakers and literati as an overcrowded, amoral jungle of viperish entitled narcissists stealing from one another for fame and profit. Overweening personal ambition trumps the possibility of joy.
What Lane experiences as wit, Holden sees as an exploration of calculating egoism. These opposing takes reveal protagonists so psychologically formless that the movie can only be interpreted singularly, as either social commentary or an expose of the creative urban jungle. Characters with more depth would have allowed Mistress to be simultaneously comic and dark; instead, it lends itself to noncomplex interpretation.
Baumbach is capable of empathetic, even tragic, portrayals. His 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, based on his childhood experience of his parents’ divorce, uses characters who outwardly conform to social stereotypes to reveal a very sad, genuine story of two people struggling to end an unhappy relationship. In Mistress America, Brooke’s years of failed ambitions offer fertile ground for an exploration of psychological pain, but the film maintains a lightness that unfortunately mimics the kind of faux-engagement with the world it aims to probe.