17 August 2015

Noah Baumbach’s ‘Mistress America’

Only four months ago I posted about Noah Baumbach’s comedy While We Were Young and now his Mistress America has just been released in the UK. Although both films are set in current-day New York and both share a theme of the implications for friendships of differences in age, in fact Mistress America has more in common with Baumbach’s 2012 Frances Ha. For a start both those films were co-written by Baumbach with Greta Gerwig who also takes the eponymous leading parts.

The plot of Mistress America spans the eight weeks or so between the start of the university year and Thanksgiving. Tracy (Lola Kirke) has just started her degree in English Literature and is finding it hard to make her mark on campus socially or with the elite Mobius Society of would-be literati. Her mother is remarrying and encourages Tracy to get in touch with her soon-to-be older stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke is 30, Tracy 18, ages at which the difference between them ("contemporaries" blags Brooke at one point) is more significant than it would be at 54 and 42, say. At first Tracy is dazzled by Brooke’s knowledge of the ropes and tropes of the youthful Manhattan lifestyle but she soon realises that Brooke is all hat and no cattle. Tracy’s depiction of a thinly-disguised Brooke in a short story gives the film its name and gains Tracy entry to Mobius.

Brooke’s fanciful plans to open a restaurant hit a financial crisis and she decides to seek funds from a wealthy former boy-friend Dylan (Michael Chernus), now married to a former rival of Brooke’s, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and living in a splendidly positioned Modernist house in Connecticut. Tracy and a couple of her fellow students in tow, Brooke doorsteps Dylan and with the support of Dylan's paediatrician neighbour and a pregnant friend of Mamie-Claire, a seven-person ensemble piece ensues. Eventually Brooke is extricated from her money problems and decides to leave town.

Frances Ha appears in Wikipedia’s list of Mumblecore movies, “characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue”. I have to confess that the early parts of Mistress America, set in a student milieu and with young actors speaking contemporary American, were not easy for my ageing English ears to follow. Interestingly the Connecticut sequence with older actors presented no such problem. There is some very witty dialogue throughout and Gerwig, only 32, has a great comic talent as performer and presumably as a writer. She sees the professional side of her relationship with Baumbach as having parallels with the great song-writing partnerships and she may well be right. Hopefully there is much more to come from them.

I think the critics’ ratings of 4* and 5* for Mistress America are a little generous, perhaps there isn’t much else around in August, although I sometimes wonder whether I’ve seen the same film. In the Financial Times, Nigel Andrews gushed:
It stars a Greta Gerwig more than ever resembling cinema’s earlier Greta G, her tomboy-Garbo features ideal for the title-nicknamed heroine.
Gerwig has many strengths, but being Garboesque is surely not one of them. Andrews then tells his readers that:
During a house-party weekend, half a dozen Brooke-related characters, indentured to her worship, form tableau vivant tribunals to critique Tracy’s acidic, Brooke-based short story, titled Mistress America.
It wasn’t a house-party weekend, two of the three other women present didn’t like Brooke at all and nobody moves or speaks in a tableau vivant. (I guess Andrews is busy brushing up his Kurosawa).

By the way, at one point on her own in Brooke’s squat, Tracy settles down with a drink from a bottle whose label ends “…ET”. Lillet Blanc is an aperitif produced in the Gironde in South West France, not well-known in the UK but popular for a long time in New York and other sophisticated parts of the US  as a cocktail ingredient. Supposedly the American taste for it was acquired on the transatlantic liners. Personally I find Lillet too sweet, even when served well-chilled as recommended. Unlike Mistress America in which Baumbach and Gerwig have the balance between the comic and the acerbic about right.

UPDATE 2 September

Richard Brody, The New Yorker's veteran film critic, whose views are far more worth reading than mine, has a very high opinion of Mistress America:
... “Mistress America” is a masterwork of literary cinema in the other, qualitative sense: it isn’t merely about literature; it’s a work of brilliant writing, one of the most exquisite of recent screenplays.

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