Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: "Mistress America" Confirms Gerwig and Baumbach as the Modern Masters of Intellectual Screwball Comedies

Scene from Mistress America
Late in director Noah Baumbach's latest Mistress America, sisters-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig) travel to meet an old high school friend who may help to invest in her new restaurant idea. While this sounds like an easy scene to pull off, there's actually layers that involve Tracy's two friends, a jealous couple, an arrogant neighbor, and a pregnant woman waiting to be picked up. What starts off as a novelty concept quickly turns into madcap fun as the plot unfolds not through one on one conversations, but constant interruptions and shifting of focus. Like the characters, we become distracted by the little things. When things finally come to the collision, it is inspiring. This isn't because the story is necessarily new, but what it has done is rather ingenious. What Gerwig has done, quite effectively, is update the screwball comedy without losing a single essence of what makes it work. All she did was update the setting, sprinkle a little art house in, and tackle the familiar story of young go-getters facing financial struggles.

When we last saw Gerwig and Baumbach, they released the now mythologized Frances Ha. What is essentially a small black and white movie about female friendship ended up becoming a bigger indicator of indie film to come. Not a stranger to the culture, Baumbach infused American culture with the French New Wave movement in ways that elevated scenes beyond their subtle jokes. Suddenly music and references meant something deeper about the character's psychology. It is a technique that he would use again with While We're Young. However, he ditched it in Mistress America - an odd choice considering that it's the return of the duo who seem destined to be one of the great collaboration duos of the modern era. Both compliment each other with humor and aesthetic approaches that are sublime.

Even then, it does feel like what we've been buying into is not Baumbach, but Gerwig. She has been around for awhile, having appeared in a lot of Joe Swanberg movies (most notably Hannah Takes the Stairs). She has made a niche for being "different." She is awkward and self-effacing without relying too heavily on it. She is apologetic and self-aware in the moment. She also understands how to write female characters better than most writers currently working. As evident by this film, she makes her chemistry with Kirke shine as they spend countless scenes yammering away about trivial pursuits. With Gerwig playing the more entitled woman to the teenage and insecure Kirke, it plays like a mentor tale where the teacher cannot accept her fate; bitter and always trying to make something of herself.

It is a role that does seem familiar. It is the American Dream to want to be successful and live out a life of luxury. In this case, Brooke wants to run a restaurant with a niche, familial concept. With retro clothing, she plays for the investor - hoping that they will find her charming. We're not clued into many of these meetings, instead seeing from Tracy's perspective that things are going well. To an extent, you want to believe that Brooke is this self-made myth who didn't go to college. Even as the past comes to haunt her, she plays the role like Jay Gatsby. Her confidence is a facade that breaks with each recognizable face. Her success seems impressive, until you realize that she's probably compensating just a little bit (she does know the word auto-didactic after all).

Then there's where Baumbach comes in. Known for his breakout film The Squid and The Whale, he has made an impressive career out of humanizing dramatic characters. While his comedic sensibilities are something new, he does create a grounded universe for Gerwig's script. The best writing isn't in moments that are monumental set pieces. It is when the audience is caught off guard, forced to be surprised by specific slurs. Baumbach's editing emphasizes these moments perfectly. In a bar scene, Brooke meets an old high school friend that she used to bully. The exchange is petty and Brooke is apathetic to the entire scenario. Yet the rapidity of cutting between the two creates a dizzying, musical flow to the moment that chokes out the dull air and leaves the conversation's essence. 

Comparatively, Kirke isn't the greatest actress. However, she does play insecure and frustrated with ease - almost as if quietly stalking Brooke to become her. In the equation, she is the straight woman of the situation, providing mostly as a springboard for Gerwig's deadpan humor to work. Together, the script really comes to life and makes the study of a self-made woman all the more comical. Even if this doesn't quite have the same immediacy as The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday, it likely is because we're not sure what the modern screwball would be like. For what it's worth, the rapid dialogue compensates for the lack of physical humor. Even then, the aforementioned third act scene does rank alongside the best in terms of spatial placement of characters. In the scene, characters do become useless, but never outstay their welcome. This is quite a feat to pull off.

I doubt that the contemporary screwball comedy will take off. Even then, Mistress America remains proof that Gerwig is an unstoppable force when it comes to writing. Beyond dealing with economic commentary, she makes characters that are compelling, humorous, and heartfelt in equal doses. She makes you care while also keeping you on your toes. Even if it doesn't seem like it now, I do think that this collaboration with Baumbach will prove to be one of the lasting effects. We will look back and think of them as a 10's version of Cary Grant and Howard Hawks. Even if this isn't as good as Frances Ha, it isn't from lack of trying. If anything, it's evidence that it wasn't a fluke. We're really in safe hands with these two.

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