Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig who gave us the wondrous FRANCES HA are back with MISTRESS AMERICA The two, partners in life as in art, wrote the script together. Baumbach directs and Gerwig acts. Given its creators it’s unfair but inevitable to compare this film to the previous one. All the qualities that were there are here, including superb acting and hilarious script with a serious permanent undertow, but appear, if not quite contrived, less smoothly flowing.
FRANCES HA was an unexpected movie miracle, engaging throughout as it followed the travails of a young woman with an immense taste for life but no defined purpose or goal whatsoever. Frances (also Greta Gerwig) cast a wide net, pretending hard that she was doing exactly what she had set out to do while pushing back the awareness that she was in fact running on empty and that her permanent examination of herself expressed in short bursts of realization didn’t bring any sense of purpose. Underlying the zaniness, the nonstop fireworks, and the social awkwardness with its foot-in-mouth corollary, constant faux pas, was the sense that this is the one life we have, time is whizzing by, and failure—in everything—is around the next street corner.
In MISTRESS AMERICA Frances or rather Brooke Cardenas, again played by Greta Gerwig, has crossed into her thirties. She still has the charisma, the humor, the nonstop plans for the future along the same lines as those of the past that went nowhere. Except that there’s a shrillness to her that didn’t use to be there, a worry in her eyes whenever she stops talking a mile a minute—about herself, always about herself.
Keen observer and note-taker of all things Brooke is the adoring Tracy (Lola Kirke), an eighteen-year old in her first semester at Barnard, a friendless aspiring writer who is rejected by the college literary society. Tracy meets Brooke, her soon to be half-sister as their parents plan to get married over Thanksgiving. The minute she lays eyes on Brooke descending those steps in Times Square while shouting her delight at the top of her head, (a spectacular scene introducing a spectacular character,) Tracy’s bland world turns magical. Brooke is everything Tracy would love to be: she’s bright, she’s funny, she knows everyone and has done everything. Lost in adoration, the younger woman follows Brooke everywhere—scribbling notes all the while—including to Connecticut where Brooke has a former boyfriend (Michael Chernus) whom she wants to get to fund her latest project, a one-of-a-kind restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That trip to Connecticut, along with a nerd who almost became Tracy’s boyfriend (Matthew Shear) his dour and suspicious girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) the former boyfriend’s present wife (Heather Lind) and a couple of other characters makes for a highly scripted but crazy second half.
Things soon become complicated, the marriage between the two parents is not going to happen, the restaurant plan will not work. Brooke is angry at a story Tracy has written about her for the literary society’s magazine. The entire group’s disappointments and ensuing quarrels, the breaking up of loves and friendships soon follow. (The ending, a tacked-on reconciliation of sorts, doesn’t quite work).
MISTRESS AMERICA is life. It’s funny, it’s painful, it’s highly entertaining. But it’s not FRANCES HA.