Mistress America Dir. Noah Baumbach

[Fox Searchlight; 2015]

Styles: comedy
Others: Frances Ha, While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach hit his stride with 2012’s sorta-comedy Frances Ha, which found him working with Greta Gerwig, a star (and co-writer and IRL partner) with enough affectless charm and naturalistic physical humor to make the subdued style of comedy that the director had practiced in Margot at the Wedding and Kicking and Screaming finally sparkle, but like, not enough to be tacky: more night sky than sequined dress. Perhaps aware that it was his best work, Baumbach has since remade it twice: first, with the Ben Stiller/Naomi Watts-led While We’re Young, and now with Mistress America, which sees him returning to work with Gerwig.

In each of these films, Baumbach revisits themes and preoccupations that mirror Frances Ha’s — mostly 1) aging and 2) how difficult it is to be an artist — and foists them on near-identical New York City residents with near-identically failed aspirations. The results have unintentionally been as uncomfortable to sit through as a double feature of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), and his near-identical remake, Funny Games (2007). The horror in Baumbach’s remakes, though, isn’t the threat of bodily torture, but rather watching the director attempt to update France Ha’s expressive, raw black and white to a conceptually drab palette of vivid commercial colors. And, more importantly, watching him switch from that film’s easy, character-based humor to the rigid formula of jokes with punchlines, mostly about how it’s so weird how some people are different ages than other people.

Fortunately, Mistress America does improve on While We’re Young. Whereas the latter dealt with a couple in their 40s befriending a couple in the 20s, Mistress deals with a friendship between a woman (Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig) in her 30s and a woman (Tracy, played by Lola Kirke) who’s beginning college. While we’re constantly made aware of Brooke and Tracy’s age difference, it isn’t the subject of as many failed jokes as its predecessor; when it is, it feels more like a result of Brooke’s own self-consciousness at being out of place (e.g., being the youngest person at a party) than, as it did in While We’re Young, the 46-year-old director’s own bitter editorial commentary on Kids These Days. It’s unclear, though, whether this is by directorial design, or by Gerwig’s. The actress takes what could have been a monotone role as a woman with plenty of self-importance but nowhere to focus it, and gives Brooke depths made mostly of teardrops underneath her pompous exterior. It’s the acting equivalent of being two waterbeds at once: the excitingly forward-thinking object of desire of the 80s, and the memory of it 20 years later. It’s a welcome change for the actress, who has no trouble being likeable, to play someone whose carefully crafted likeability is so sad.

The film is hardly the Greta Gerwig vehicle that Frances Ha was, though. The focus, and one of the best parts, of Mistress America is the relationship between Brooke and Tracy, a slippery dynamic of friendship and mentor-mentee that might ultimately be Tracy’s story more than Brooke’s. While you’d think a director as obsessed with age differences as Baumbach would’ve cast a more physically accurate college freshman than the 24-year-old Kirke, her skill at portraying wide-eyedness without naivety (in Amazon’s excellent TV series Mozart in the Jungle) works well here, making her seem at once Brooke’s student in life and her equal, or maybe more. Tracy is an aspiring writer who finds brief acclaim after a short story that barely fictionalizes Brooke, and so Kirke might be Mistress America’s stand-in for Baumbach as much as Stiller was in While We’re Young, in which he played a blocked documentary filmmaker despairing about not being young anymore. But then again, Gerwig, so concerned with aging, might be Baumbach’s stand-in, here, as well. Which is perhaps the reason Mistress America feels more honest than Young: Baumbach’s inspiration lately seems to be an autobiographical shadow, an aging failure he never became, this review notwithstanding.

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