Mistress America

(2015) ** 1/2 R
84 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Noah Baumbach. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus.

/content/films/4826/1.jpg“You want a piece of me?” Them’s fighting words, but also ones that reflect a psychosociological truism about human interaction. Jealousy and a kind of parasitic ambition form the dark side of many a seemingly collegial friendship. And so it goes in Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s new film Mistress America, in which two women forge and test a friendship based largely on mutual self-interest.

Director/co-writer Baumbach and star/co-writer Gerwig (currently a couple) have in Mistress America a comedy of friendship found, lost, and found again. Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) plays Tracy Fishko, a newly installed freshman at New York City’s private women’s liberal arts institution Barnard College. Immediately established as being on a lonely search for self (an icebreaking activity gifts her the defining symbol of a tracking device), Tracy soon finds herself taking up a diner booth, staring into a cracked cell phone as Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” quietly wails in the air above her. Why not, she reasons, introduce herself to her one New York contact, her soon-to-be-stepsister Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig)? A fateful phone call later, Tracy has boarded the express train that is Brooke, destination unknown.

Gerwig applies her considerable comic aplomb to the whirligig Brooke, a Soul Cycle instructor who, in her personal life, combines that job’s aggressive can-do energy with monumental self-absorption. As they swap stories over dorm-room screwdriver, Brooke at one point responds to Tracy, “That’s cool about the yogurt machine. Everyone I love dies.” Or how about this? “Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.” Or this? “I’m an autodidact. That word is one of the things I self-taught myself.”

A hustler who has yet to make good, Brooke makes for a dangerous role model to—and brilliant source material for—attentive aspiring fiction writer Tracy. The oddly paced story culminates in an extended climax whereby Brooke leads Tracy and a couple of tenuous friends (one of whom Tracy has taken a romantic interest in and the other his girlfriend) to the Greenwich, Connecticut home of Brooke’s rich ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus of Orange Is the New Black). Brooke intends to ply him for money she feels owed, if only she can do an end-run around his wife, Mimi Clare (Heather Lind).

The sequence hits the ground running at a deliberately Hawksian screwball pace, but even considering Brooke’s motormouth, this second act marks an awkward tonal shift, promptly abandoned again for a more circumspect coda. The film’s oddly ramshackle construction hurts, but the zesty dialogue and the character work and chemistry of Kirke and Gerwig compensate mightily, as does the film’s refreshing focus on female friendship, in its joys and limitations. Baumbach and Gerwig also nose around in interesting ideas about creative appropriation, an increasingly superficial culture (“I’m going to shorten that, punch it up, and turn it into a tweet,” Brooke announces of one fleeting thought), and sensitivity to age—all prime subjects of Baumach’s previous film, While We’re Young.

An ‘80s nostalgia score by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips signals the filmmakers’ stated influence of pictures like Something Wild and After Hours, the zanily farcical heights of which the relatively contained Mistress America never approaches. Like Brooke, the film flies a strange and arresting course: if not quite a screwball, then certainly a change-up pitch.

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