Monday, December 21, 2015

Mistress America

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2015)

Baumbach, continuing his collaboration with Greta Gerwig, is on a roll.  After the stuffed and somewhat disheveled While We're Young, we now have this zesty dish of a film, compact but unexpectedly resonant.  Mistress America contains Baumbach's signature wit, but also the leavening agent of Gerwig, who provides, paradoxically, both a goofy levity and a certain gravity.  The film is concerned with the travails of trying to succeed as a creative person in the contemporary world.  Not long ago, in writing about While We're Young, I chided Baumbach for what I perceived as a certain naivete about the down-and-dirty world of  New York in the age of late-capitalist decadence.  This film comes off as a kind of corrective; looking forward rather than back, Baumbach sees both the possibilities and pitfalls in the world of self-obsessed, neurotic young people in the big bad City.

As expected, Mistress is very funny, and probably the most screwball iteration yet of Baumbach's comedy.  There's a touch of Hawks about the film, in its featuring of witty, fast-talking characters thrown into odd situations.  But unlike Hawks, the subject isn't sex.  Instead, the film focuses on the intersection of friendship and careerist ambition.  Gerwig's character Brooke perfectly captures the paradox of the aspirational millennial; she is seeking authenticity (her quest to open an uber-chic and yet homey restaurant, called, perfectly, Mom's) but must be always performing.  It's impossible to see where Brooke ends and the performance begins, but that's the point.  The most telling scene occurs around the midpoint of the film, where Brooke expresses for the first time the sadness that underlies her striving.  She tells Tracey (expertly portrayed by Lola Kirke) that people don't really know what they want until they turn 30, because it's at that point that they start to feel like they are losing time; adulthood is now a permanent condition, and they must work to achieve more while simultaneously ensuring that they don't lose what they already have.  It's a bracing moment, almost chilling in its starkly existential terms.  Brooke's urgency and effervescent flakiness are also tied, somewhat schematically, to the death of her mother, an event that Brooke treats more as an eccentricity in her personal narrative than as the trauma it undoubtedly was.

Tracy, being younger than Brooke, is both relatively inexperienced and also more straightforward in her desires.  She wants to be a writer, and over the course of the movie, her abilities and her ambition grow.  She isn't interested in the kind of impresario lifestyle that Brooke is chasing; Tracy wants to be admired from afar.  She craves experience but also feels in some distinct sense separate from it, always on some level observing; in other words, she's an artist.  She will never have the magnetism that Brooke has, but she might be able to reconfigure it, to use it for her own ends.

Of course, this all falls apart, and the scene in which the story peaks, set at a suburban mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, is a masterpiece of good, old-fashioned farce.  It's the crux of the film, the bringing together of all the strands of story, and of the disparate personality types that we have carefully been following since the beginning.  The fundamental clash between money and art, a principal theme of the film, is highlighted: Wealth is interested in art as a marker of status and prestige.  Wealthy people can help sustain art, but this puts artists at their mercy.  Brooke gets the money she needs for her restaurant, but with the condition that she abandon it.  She doesn't see that her natural charisma - which includes, for her sudden patron (and former fianc√©) a certain sex appeal - is her best asset, but also her chief liability.  In all of her endeavors, she runs the risk of personally eclipsing anything she attempts to illuminate; people want her, not necessarily anything she makes. 

Baumbach doesn't have this problem, and neither does Tracey.  They are both artists whose involvement with their work is partially hidden.  Gerwig is another matter, and makes for an interesting case, which Mistress America stops just short of fully exploring.  Gerwig's naturally fluent energy and intelligence are liberated by the role of Brooke, who has a level of naivete in lieu of Gerwig's self-consciousness.  It'll be interesting to see how Gerwig plays this out; she's already shown interest and skill behind the camera (in addition to her co-writing with Baumbach, she also co-wrote and co-directed Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends).  My guess is that she'll do much more in projects to come. 

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