Noah Baumbach’s reputation continues to grow even as his contemporaries gravitate towards bigger projects. This prodigiously talented New York native seems resolutely set on a course of producing independent minded work that bedazzles with wit, insight and comic flair. His films continually probe into the psyches of outsiders or marginalised people who are either trying overly hard to work their way into circles of the cooler, hipper, more popular factions or are deluded into believing they’re already part of that clique. It was enjoyably uncomfortable watching Ben Stiller as the deeply troubled, dysfunctional title character in Baumbach’s superb Greenberg (2010), as it was when Stiller and Naomi Watts, as a couple approaching middle age, tried to ride on the coattails of a hip younger couple to renew their lives and stalling relationship in the hilarious and ultimately sobering While We’re Young (2014).
In between those two films, Baumbach uncovered his perfect muse, Greta Gerwig. She had already played a significant supporting role in Greenberg however. Combining their talents, they created Frances Ha (2012), a flawless homage to Woody Allen’s great New York films, which, shot in glorious black and white, gave us a hapless character to love, a dazzling young woman whose enthusiasm and verbosity can’t, ultimately, camouflage her terminal unlucky loser status.
Working once again and co-writers, the pair has worked their magic for a second time, producing Mistress America (2015). Gerwig, revealing the full range of her comedic timing and fearlessness in never shirking from a scene in which some mild form of debasement in the possible outcome. It’s this lack of inhibition that defines Gerwig’s 30 year old Brooke and startles her future younger sister Tracy (the wonderfully natural Lola Kirke) who is clamouring for guidance, friendship and, without really knowing it, inspiration for a story that’ll get her published in the pretentious college lit mag.
But like the best of Baumbach’s humanely flawed characters, there’s a streakiness to Brooke that eventually undermines the estimation that Tracy utilises to secretly kick-start that hopeful literary journey. The fact is that these shortcomings of Brooke’s are superbly walled over like a previously unseen crack in an otherwise perfect façade. As we see and learn from Brooke through the eyes of the younger woman – hungry for knowledge, wisdom and guidance – we witness a perfect ideal and role model: a resourceful and ambitious business woman, playful and exotic, with her finger in many pies and with the world seemingly at her mercy.
How this ideal falls apart, amidst a series of hilarious and calamitous strokes as Brooke sets out on her primary mission of acquiring financing for a dream restaurant, is what elevates Mistress America to high art even as farce begins to play a significant role in events. Brooke has an infectious spirit and wanton daring in her dreaming and scheming, but in their composition of her, Baumbach and Gerwig are unafraid to reveal genuine reasons for actively disliking her too. A scene where a bullied schoolmate from her past turns recognition in a bar to confrontation about the psychological scars created by Brooke’s past behaviour offer a glimpse into a darker thread of consequence as she skates heedlessly from one project to the next, not leaving many in her wake who aren’t touched one way or another. As funny as it is wise, Mistress America may be Baumbach’s finest film to date.