Writer-director Noah Baumbach has a reputation for making sour comedy-dramas. In 2010’s “Greenberg,” Ben Stiller plays the adrift, misanthropic title character. In 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding,” Nicole Kidman’s habitually cruel Margot is seemingly determined to sabotage her own sister’s wedding.
Subsequent Baumbach films made in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, his actress-writer girlfriend, are less dire in tone. “Mistress America,” despite the disappointments that befall Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has two of the most likable characters in Baumbach history.
Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker who passionately believes she’s on the verge of something big. Lola Kirke’s Tracy is a college freshman who simply wants find her own foothold in life, not to mention New York.
Tracy moves to the city with dreams of being a writer. But school is dull and her fellow students, including a mean roommate, don’t respond to her desires to fit in and be somebody.
At school, Tracy quickly develops a crush on Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow writing student. Tony’s fiercely possessive girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), puts a swift stop to possible romantic developments between Tracy and obviously interested Tony.
Baumbach’s camera reveals the lonely Tracy going through the motions. Tracy’s black-and-white world blooms into Technicolor, however, when she meets Brooke. The pending marriage of Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad brings the future sisters-in-law together.
Gerwig plays Brooke with breathless energy. Brooke blows through New York, dreaming big and doing whatever she can to make her dreams real. Tracy feels as if she’s caught a rising star. Hanging onto Brooke’s always-in-motion coattails, she happily goes along for the ride. Gerwig’s Brooke, a whirlwind, and Kirke’s Tracy, a young woman who’s not without warmth but also detached enough to be a good observer, fit together like puzzle pieces.
Before “Mistress America,” Gerwig and Baumbach co-wrote “Frances Ha,” another movie about a young woman in New York. The two films have many similarities. Both Frances and Brooke have trouble keeping a roof over their heads. They’re also reaching for golden rings that are, practically speaking, probably beyond their reach.
But “Mistress America,” while it may not be Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s “Manhattan” or “Annie Hall,” beats “Frances Ha” at every turn. Regardless of their new film’s familiar characters and situations, Gerwig and Baumbach learned how to do what they do better. And “Mistress America” is much funnier than Baumbach’s previous work.
Some of the movie’s best moments happen during a trip to the suburbs. There’s are brilliant ensemble scenes featuring Brooke, Tracy, Tony, Nicolette and people from Brooke’s convoluted past. However much of the madness is written or improvised, these out-of-New York sequences lift an already good film higher.
Moviegoers who sampled Baumbach’s movies in the past and left with a bad taste in their mouths may do well to give “Mistress America” a chance. It’s funny and poignant. It’s also wisely reflective of real-life dreamers who strive, get knocked down but then get up and start all over again.