Fresh off his generational comedy, "While We're Young," Noah Baumbach reteams with Greta Gerwig for "Mistress America," a story with similar preoccupations about the allure of youthfulness and struggle for authenticity, but delivered with a delightfully screwball edge. This is Baumbach's third collaboration with Gerwig, following 2010's "Greenberg" and 2012's "Frances Ha," and her contributions seem to bring out a looser, more playful side to the director -- "Mistress America" plays as a comfortable companion to "While We're Young" but without that film's somewhat bitter aftertaste.
Throughout his career, Baumbach has maintained a fascination with characters who face major life transitions kicking and screaming (literally the name of his first movie), and in most of his films it is college that acts as the harsh dividing line between the carefree days of youth and the crushing responsibilities of adulthood. Tracy (Lola Kirke) has just moved to New York City as a freshman at Barnard College, and is feeling adrift in the mystifying social world of higher education. She develops a crush on the first boy she meets, Tony (Matthew Shear), but that tapers off into a friendship as they bond over their mutual rejection from the campus's pretentious literary society. Tracy's mother is set to remarry over the Thanksgiving holiday, and still feeling lonely, Tracy takes her mother's suggestion to call up her stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig).
A whirlwind of relentless enthusiasm, Brooke is a force of nature. A self-described autodidact, Brooke is constantly reinventing herself, fashioning herself into a restaurateur, interior decorator, spinning instructor, and math tutor. Tracy is dazzled by the older and seemingly wiser Brooke, who seems open to all that the city has to offer in a way that Tracy wishes for herself.
Gradually it becomes apparent that while Brooke is an endless source of ideas, she's mostly all talk (her latest brainstorm involves a restaurant that's also a hair salon); consciously or not, Brooke sees in Tracy a way to perpetuate the mythology she's built for herself. Realizing that Brooke isn't as together as she seems, Tracy decides to stay along for the ride, but mines the experience for writing material. As she gets a crash-course in city living, she surreptitiously scribbles it all down in her notebook, using Brooke as inspiration for a story she calls "Mistress America" (taken from the title for Brooke's proposed superhero television series).
The film's screwball tone keeps escalating, finally tipping over into full blown farce as Brooke and Tracy, along with a few fellow students, pile into a car to invade the Connecticut home of Brooke's "ex-friend and nemesis" (a hilariously haughty Heather Lind) in order to secure startup money. This sequence, with characters running from room to room, talking over one another, and piling on complication after complication, is a marvel of writing, performance, timing, and blocking. The fast-paced banter would give Howard Hawks a run for his money.
"While We're Young" showed us what happened when a 40-something couple, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, fell under the sway of a younger, "cooler" couple, and now "Mistress America" gives us that story's flipside. Like "Paper Towns" earlier this summer, the film explores the consequences of projecting our own idealized preconceptions onto someone else. It understands that in a world where everyone seems to borrow from everyone else, the search for authenticity can be a fruitless undertaking when no one seems to be quite sure what that is anymore.
Even when they're making bad choices, Gerwig's script maintains an affection for its characters that "While We're Young" didn't always extend to its malevolent millennials. Kirke is wonderful in the type of grounded performance that's exactly what the film requires as it spirals increasingly out of control; her Tracy is the perfect straight-woman to Brooke's manic, dominating personality. Crucially, she earns our sympathies in those opening scenes when she's feeling lost and unsure, convinced that everyone around her somehow knows precisely what they're doing. Greta Gerwig is great as always and despite Brooke's blatant narcissism, we can see immediately why people so easily fall under her charm. Brooke is just another in a line of brilliant comedic creations from Gerwig, providing further evidence that she's not just a great writer, but one of the best leading ladies we have.