Discover more from Appetite for Deconstruction
Barbenheimer: 'Mistress America'
July 21 will see the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We continue today with 2015's Mistress America, the second writing collaboration between Gerwig and Baumbach.
Lest there was any doubt, Mistress America affirms that, purely from a creative standpoint, Greta Gerwig is the best thing that ever happened to Noah Baumbach. In most ways, the movie feels more traditionally Baumbachian than the duo's first co-creation, Frances Ha. But it continues to demonstrate a level of emotional warmth that the director's earlier films generally lacked, and it's hard not to assume that's coming largely from Gerwig.
Mistress America follows Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), an aspiring fiction writer who has just begun her freshman year at Barnard. Tracy struggles socially; she's rejected by a prestigious Lit Society, and only has one real friend, Tony (Matthew Shear). Worsening matters, after she develops feelings for Tony, he starts he dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who is furiously suspicious of Tracy from the moment they first meet. Lonely and desperate, Tracy calls Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig), her soon-to-be-step sister who is also living in New York City; Brooke, in turn, takes Tracy under wing, and they quickly develop a de facto older sibling/younger sibling relationship. Hilarity ensues.
Mistress America is very much a Noah Baumbach movie - and not just because Tony, a nebbishy neurotic with a Dressed to Kill poster on his wall, is clearly a surrogate for the director. Far more than the title character of Frances Ha, Brooke feels like a lead Baumbach character. She's narcissistic and yet sorely bereft of self-awareness, insecure and prone to unearned, overcompensatory boastfulness, sophisticated yet sophomoric, selfish and mean and desperate for attention and praise.
But, as with Frances, she's never overbearingly irritating like a lot of other Baumbach roles, because, well, she's still Greta Gerwig, and she's still kinda charming even when she's being insufferable (whenever she's accurately accused of some uncomplimentary behavior, she denies the charge, asserting that it's not possible she did such a thing because "I just wasn't brought up that way").
That's to say nothing of the fact that there's a distinctly feminine energy here that Baumbach simply never conjured on his own (or even in his one previous writing collaboration with a woman: Greenberg, on which his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, shares a 'Story By' credit). Like Frances Ha, Mistress America is as much about being a young woman as it is about anything (and Brooke might be the flashier role, but Kirke deserves a lot of praise, too). Maybe I'm not giving Baumbach enough credit, but it's difficult imagine there's any world in which he wrote this exchange without Gerwig's help:
What makes the movie fun is the escalation of screwball comedy - a genre in which Baumbach and Gerwig only dipped their toes in Frances Ha. Honestly, on the page, Mistress America doesn't always read as being super-funny... but the way the dialogue is paced, like a perpetually-ricocheting pinball, makes the exchanges sing. Most of the movie's second half could be a play - it all takes place in one house, and is basically just an ever-increasing group of people talking over one another - and it's goddamn hilarious.
What gives the story some layers, though, is the complex nature of the relationship between Tracy and Brooke. Tracy, by her own admission, falls in love with Brooke almost immediately... but that doesn't mean she's oblivious to Brooke's many shortcomings. The movie's title comes from a short story Tracy surreptitiously writes about Brooke. We periodically hear snippets of story, as narrated by Tracy, and it's mostly unflattering. Making us aware that Tracy is aware that Brooke isn't exactly who she claims to be is part of what makes Brooke tolerable - there's a kind of semi-meta distancing effect (late in the movie, Brooke is seeing holding a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, a post-modernist masterpiece presented as both a poem and a running editorial commentary on that poem).
But we also understand that Tracy really does love Brooke - even if she didn't literally say as much, it's readily apparent from the ways in which she starts taking on Brooke's character traits for better (she becomes much more confident) or worse (she becomes much more casually cruel, as when giving Tony notes on one of his short stories).
Furthermore, Brooke really does love Tracy! When her father calls her say that he and Tracy's mom have called off their wedding, Brooke bursts into tears. There's a sincere connection between them; they really do want to be sisters. And we feel that emotional connection.
That's because Tracy and Brooke make one another feel seen. Tracy, of course, has no actual friends besides Brooke and Tony. But Brooke also seems to have a lot of acquaintances with few real relationships: A large part of the story revolves around the bad blood between her and her ex-best friend (Heather Lind), who married her ex-fiancé (Michael Chernus). Tellingly, the two most important men in her life - her father and her current boyfriend/business partner, Stavros - are never seen on screen, and exist only as presences on the phone (I say "presences" because we never even hear Stavros' voice). When Stavros breaks things off with Brooke (because she kissed another dude!), she becomes upset not because she loved him, but because he was going to finance her restaurant business. Her relationship with her father doesn't seem that much stronger; shortly after first meeting Tracy, Brooke announces, "My Dad’s so strange. I’m sure he’s making [your mom] convert to Catholicism." Her primary concern, when her father calls to tell her the wedding is off? "What does this make me and Tracy?" She doesn't want the kinship she feels with Tracy to end!
So, yes, when Nicolette shows Brooke the short story Tracy has authored, Brooke becomes enraged. But later in the movie, when Tracy tries to patch up their relationship, Brooke acknowledges that Tracy's observations were pretty much dead-on:
Brook forgives Tracy because Tracy gets Brooke, and Tracy loves Brooke, in spite of - or maybe even because of! - Brooke's flaws. And don't we all want someone like that in our lives?