My appreciation of the filmic collaborations of director Noah Baumbach and comic actress Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha”) has been an on-and-off affair. Their latest, “Mistress America,” is definitely an on.
It is, in fact, about as close to a classic screwball comedy as we’re likely to witness in this era of “duh” cinema — wonderfully acted and impeccably timed.
The film begins with an insightful five-minute montage depicting the early days on an NYC campus of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman who dreams of a career as a writer. Instead of life-changing experiences, Tracy finds herself lonely and isolated.
Relief arrives in the form of Brooke (Gerwig), a 32-year-old whirling dervish of energy and ambition who introduces Tracy to the odder corners of the Big Apple. Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father are engaged; the two women will soon be stepsisters.
Brooke immediately begins introducing Tracy to her bohemian pals as “my baby sister, Tracy.”
Here’s the thing about Brooke: She’s all fervent ideas and no followthrough. Her current project is a restaurant that would be a bizarro amalgam of eatery, community center and hair salon.
Brooke has a motormouth that is several blocks ahead of her brain; she converses in a form of East Coast Valley Girl-ese with a stream-of-consciousness style worthy of James Joyce. She’s exhausting, but oddly delightful.
One acquaintance says of her: “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or just a sociopath.”
Tracy is snowed and soon becomes an adoring acolyte who marvels that Brooke should be a comic book superhero: Mistress America.
But there’s an element of “All About Eve” at work in Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay. For while Gerwig’s Brooke is the film’s hyperkinetic scene stealer, as the story progresses it’s the low-keyed Tracy who begins carrying most of the weight.
For an aspiring writer, a real-life eccentric like Brooke is a Godsend, a living laboratory for character study. Eventually we must decide how much of Tracy’s relationship with Brooke is based on adoration, and how much on exploitation.
“Mistress America” hits the sublime late in the film when Brooke, Tracy and a couple of Tracy’s college acquaintances (Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones) venture forth to the Connecticutt suburbs to hit up Brooke’s filthy rich ex-boyfriend (Michael Chernus) and his brittle wife (Heather Lind) for startup money for the restaurant.
Joining this cauldron of oddball behavior is a pregnant lawyer (Cindy Cheung) and a supercilious neighbor (Dean Wareham).
All of these colliding characters have very specific, richly comic personalities. It’s a comedy feast of overlapping dialogue and colliding egos.
It is, I think, Baumbach’s best comedy, superior to this year’s “While We’re Young.”
And it is important for introducing audiences to Lola Kirke, a young actress with future star written all over her.