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Wit, honesty mark writing in 'Mistress'

By JOEY OSTER/ VN MOVIE CRITIC
On September 15, 2015

Most filmmakers can’t fathom making one wonderful comedy in a calendar year, let alone two.

On the heels of “While We’re Young,” writer/director Noah Baumbach accomplishes this pipe dream graciously with his new film “Mistress America.”

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a lonely freshman at a Columbia-esque university in Manhattan. Her aspiration of being accepted into a prestigious literary society has been crushed. Her only friend is Tony (Matthew Shear), another reject from the briefcase-carrying, cardigan-wearing club.

Lonely, Tracy reaches out to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the 30-something daughter of Tracy’s soon-to-be stepfather who lives in nearby Times Square but she has never met.

From the moment the women meet, Tracy is completely enamored with Brooke and her lifestyle. Brooke is the kind of person who simultaneously does nothing and everything. She’s an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, an interior decorator, etc.

Early on, virtually every conversation between the two seems one-sided, with Brooke spouting off thoughts and ideas in every direction while Tracy looks at her with adorable doe eyes, hanging on every word.

However, Tracy isn’t daft or naïve. She knows a majority of Brooke’s words are guff, but she’s a burning building; Tracy can’t look away and neither can we.

Gerwig is a revelation as Brooke.

Rarely do films give us this multi-faceted of a character. Brooke could’ve easily fallen into endless tropes of a “young, independent woman in the big city.”

Gerwig (who wrote the film alongside director Noah Baumbach) approaches Brooke as a person, not just an exaggerated caricature. She also gives herself some of the film’s funniest, most-quotable lines, and it’s some of the best screenwriting of 2015.

Twenty minutes in and I wanted to walk through the screen and into this world created by Baumbach and Gerwig and told through the eyes of Lola Kirke’s Tracy.

The soundtrack oozes over you like vintage John Hughes, and Tracy’s narration bleeds that of a college freshman longing to be a great writer.

Obviously this is exactly her character, but Baumbach and Gerwig give Tracy’s writing the precise amount of flawed pretention to make her real. She’s not some writing prodigy or the next great American novelist. She’s that slightly nerdy, entirely coy girl who lived down the hall from you during your freshman year.

Eventually, Tracy and Brooke’s adventures lead them to a road trip to Mamie-Claire’s home in the suburbs.

Mamie-Claire is Brooke’s ex-friend who seemingly stole her business idea, her man and, most importantly, her cats. Driven by Tony in his beat up car, Brooke, Tracey and Tony’s paranoid jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), embark to coerce Mamie-Claire and her husband (Michael Chernus) to invest in Brooke’s project of opening a restaurant/coffee shop.

Once our motley crew arrives at Mamie-Claire’s, the film completely shifts tone.

Set against the piercing white backdrop of a beautiful modern home, over half a dozen characters spin around like toy tops, in and out of the frame and into different rooms.

The entire sequence at this house comes to together like a Grecian stage play, complete with biting satire and a Greek Chorus. Every line of dialogue punches seamlessly. It is a glorious, controlled chaos that’s beautiful to watch unravel.

Everyone expends so much energy in effort to become the idea of how they want to be seen.

It’s Tracy as a writer and an intellect, or Brooke as a street smart/book smart Renaissance woman. It’s Mamie-Claire as a WASPy, hoity-toity housewife who is really into “fitness,” or her husband Dylan as the hip, rich middle-aged guy, who has “gotten really into vinyl recently” and is so down with marijuana that he takes every opportunity to remind everyone that he’d be down to smoke at any given moment.

Each and every character never just is; they adamantly do and say things they presume will cater to their desired image.

Baumbach also explored this in “While We’re Young” from earlier this year. He wants to be genuine and authentic as a filmmaker and constantly sees that strive for authenticity in today’s young adults and his own contemporaries.

With his two most recent films, Baumbach is finally giving an unwavering look at real human beings, not the faux quirky mumblecore archetypes he was trying to create in previous efforts like “Frances Ha” and “Greenberg.”

He and Gerwig (not only his muse, but real-life girlfriend) are growing into some of the wittiest and most honest American filmmakers of today. 

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