You’re funny because you don’t know you’re funny.
I know I’m funny. There’s nothing I don’t know about myself. It’s why I can’t do therapy.
So deeply negative was my experience of Baumbach’s last film, the cranky, preachy While We’re Young that even with the leavening presence of Gerwig, star of Baumbach’s best and most affectionate film, Frances Ha, I was a bit worried about this movie. No need. From now on Baumbach should really only be allowed to make movies that he co-writes with Gerwig. She provides something special to his films, a particularly light, but brilliant, ascent of hope and affection.
But this film is, thankfully, not just a glorified remake of Frances Ha. It has its own axes to grind. Lola Kirke plays Tracy, an awkward college freshman who meets Gerwig’s Brooke in New York City. The two become friends and soon Tracy has been sucked into Brooke’s insane world. While Frances Ha had a certain beauty in its worldview and in the way it viewed Frances’ journey for a place in this world with hope, Mistress America is much more about a purposely rootless person. It’s obvious pretty early on that Brooke won’t be getting that quiet moment of contentment, that moment of maturity beginning, that Frances gets at the end of her movie. If Frances is rootless and searching for a place to be, Brooke is rootless by choice and desperately so, moving at the speed of light, frantic out of fear that if she stops to think for longer than ten seconds that she’ll come to some realizations about her life, realizations that she’s desperate to outrun.
But all that makes this feel like less of a comedy than it is. It’s actually maybe Baumbach’s straight up funniest film, a kind of modern day riff on the screwball comedy. There’s a lengthy period in the film where Brooke and Tracy journey to the country to visit an old rival of Brooke’s and that sequence just builds into this bizarre, highly energetic farce, of new characters popping in and two people dashing out that door and three people saunter in this one. It’s fast, witty and absolutely hilarious. The script has a ton of great lines and Gerwig’s performance is, as always, perfection. Lola Kirke is really, really great as well; it could easily be a performance that’s overwhelmed by Gerwig’s manic energy, but it isn’t. Kirke plays the character perfectly, all awkwardness and quietness. And Kirke is an actress to watch; I had no idea while watching this film that she played the backwoods hick Amy encounters in the Ozarks in Gone Girl – the characters couldn’t be more different and she was great at both of them. Also of note is the very funny Heather Lind, as Brooke’s old enemy, the neurotic, wide-eyed, twitchy Mamie-Claire. But enough, I guess; it’s a movie that just fires on all cylinders. Like Frances Ha, it’s a character piece that’s also a clever, often hilarious comedy, packed with great moments and quotable lines. Performed to perfection, executed flawlessly, sharply written and more than just a rehash of Baumbach’s last pairing with Gerwig, Mistress America is a masterpiece. 4 stars.
tl;dr – perfectly performed, sharply written and flawlessly executed, Mistress America is the rare character study that succeeds as a hilarious comedy. 4 stars.