Review: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, 2015, U.S.A)

Welcome to the writer’s world. Self-creation has inspired many films like Mistress America. These are the stories of New York and its relentless buzz, the neo-metropolitan struggles of creative dissatisfaction, regression or progression in light of post-adolescent neuroses as adults face the implications of their childhood assumptions, and so on into the recognisable beats. That sensibility to the way in which people exist as lead characters and dormant observers in their individual stories, and the interplay with the wider story being told by Baumbach allows the pure essences, the Cliff Note summaries of the film to be sprinkled evenly and imperceptibly across the film. Mistress America reads from the same prestigious and star-powered songsheet as Birdman, resulting in  build ups of pivotal speeches centring on an ageing lead character. There’s doomed intelligentsia scrambling for relevancy or to achieve lasting success.

Noah Baumbach’s directing gives the whole thing a theatrical, clinical comic sense, there’s a furious laughs-per-minute ratio. The dialogue snaps back and forth between the broad cast of characters refreshing recognisable archetypes with a relentless witticism. We see Brooke, the New York socialite roundly adored and with seemingly unbreakable confidence seen through the eyes of the shy student writer Tracy,  doting, musing, and generally being inspired into character development. The supporting characters include the intrusive and snooty neighbour, the now-married school friends with their suburban lifestyle, moneyed and comfortable with pregnancy book clubs and mid-life crises on the way, all dovetailing in a revolving door of tableaux entrances and exits.   

All of this fairly overemphasised analysis is there in the film, even on first viewing, interwoven like a single vine tracking up the tree of the film. The first half of the film is fairly plotless, churning through conversation is the primary objective, and the characters are chiselled out through their snapshot scenes. Eventually, there’s more recognisable beats from the Baumbach back catalogue; a physical road trip reflecting a journey into the past/future (Greenberg), and a crucial scene reminiscent of the peak of Frances’ comic tragedy.

Mistress America’s identity is as amorphous and fluid as the defining terms our lead characters try desperately to shed or encapsulate at different times. Between Brooke and Tracy, the ideals of being a young woman in New York are served up and dealt with, revealing the multi-faceted characters beneath them, in 86 minutes of intense riffing and incredible conversations. Worth the price of admission for the quotes alone;

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For fans of – Woody Allen, New York, modernist interior design, laughing, and simultaneously occurring coming of age tragicomedies.

Written by Peter deGraft-Johson, Editor
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