'Mistress America' Review: Noah Baumbach's Wry, Charming Sister Comedy

Mistress America
Greta Gerwig, left, and Lola Kirke star as soon-to-be sisters in "Mistress America." Fox Searchlight Pictures

Noah Baumbach is one of those successful directors who's obsessed with failure.

His work since the beginning has been suffused with the hopes and anxieties of a flailing creative class. Baumbach's first film, 1995's Kicking and Screaming, followed a sardonic group of graduates who can't quite move on from their liberal arts college.

As the director's ambition grew, so did his characters'—though their endeavors never quite seemed to land. The fantastic Squid and the Whale (2005) centered on family dysfunction and brought us Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), the insolent snob of a novelist whose career and marriage explode in his face at the same time. More recently, While We're Young (2015) placed Ben Stiller in the role of Josh, a hapless filmmaker who spends something close to a decade struggling to wrap up a documentary about an obscure leftist somebody. The central conceit there revolved around a life-affirming/-upending friendship between 44-year-old Josh and a much younger couple played a little too close for comfort to an SNL parody of hipsters.

In Mistress America, Baumbach's second—and better—comedy of the year, the protagonist is a sharp but lonely Barnard College freshman named Tracy (played by Lola Kirke, younger sister of Girls actress Jemima Kirke). Tracy's failures come early: she doesn't get the guy, she doesn't make the literary society. Worse, her parents have recently split. So Tracy gets something else in the form of a soon-to-be step-sister, the older and wilder—if perhaps not wiser—Brooke (Greta Gerwig).

There's a kinetic and irresistibly New York energy to the film's early sequences, as 18-year-old Tracy finds liberation in her new sister's stories, dizzying taste for nightlife and illegal apartment. (Gerwig and Baumbach have acknowledged taking inspiration from Martin Scorsese's brilliant, similarly paced After Hours.) Brooke is fun but intensely self-absorbed—she's the sort of person who narrates her tweets, because you have to "know what you're selling," and constantly mentions her mother's death, not to start conversations but to end them by amassing easy sympathy points. Tracy's on board but quietly taking notes for a Brooke-inspired short story, which lends the film its title and inventively sporadic narration. (It's a neat trick that lets us peek inside a subconscious that describes her sister as smelling "like her youth had died and she was dragging around the carcass.") When Brooke needs investment cash to get her restaurant fantasy off the ground, Tracy becomes her cheerleader. But Tracy can tell (and so can we) that Brooke's great failure is on the way.

Like While We're Young, Mistress America centers around an age-defying relationship. It's a fitting motif; Gerwig, who is 14 years Baumbach's junior, has been the director's romantic partner since 2011 and professional collaborator since a little bit earlier than that. But Mistress America feels less bitter and more honest than its preceding film, probably because it resists trading in character clichés. There are some predictable if audience-satisfying potshots at the suburbs. In a strange sequence, Brooke is confronted by a former high school bullying target who has married and moved to Jersey. The screenplay is filled with barbs but too clever to turn sour, especially once Gerwig enters the picture. And there are sly callbacks to earlier Baumbach films: a quarrel about cribbing dialogue for stories that suggests a similar bit in Kicking and Screaming, a jealous girlfriend character who brings to mind the lesser-seen Mr. Jealousy.

Mistress America's spectacularly messy denouement takes place in the swanky Greenwich, Connecticut home of Brooke's ex-best-friend-turned-rich-wife (Heather Lind), where Brooke has come to appeal for money and—perhaps subconsciously—approval. There, in Greenwich, the film's most moving scene sneaks up on you. It's a simple phone call set against a grey riverside view (I promise not to give too much away). Versatility is hardly Gerwig's strength, and Brooke often feels like an older, brattier update on the confused but endearing star of 2013's Frances Ha, but in that moment she sells the character. Mistress America has compassion for its players without needing to make them likeable.

A final thing: Noah Baumbach's films were once largely male-driven. No longer—not since the Baumbach–Gerwig writing partnership emerged. Gerwig remarks, in the production notes, that it's "unusual to see a story about women that has nothing to do with their relationships with the men in their lives"; in this way, too, the movie feels like a logical continuation of Frances Ha. Mistress America lives in the gray space between sisterhood and close female friendship. Like its characters, that space turns out to be messy and full of unfulfilled needs.