by JULIA CLARKE
dir. Noah Baumbach
Despite its cliché, I have come to terms with the writer figure, musing over this carnival we call life, in a story: Nick Carraway is nothing if not iconic. In Noah Baumbach's new film Mistress America, the writer is a young woman named Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is starting college at Barnard and finding it lonely. Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) urges Tracy to call Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her soon-to-be second husband. Brooke and Tracy meet up in Times Square, where Brooke announces she lives because she incorrectly thought it was the cool place to be when she first stepped off the bus from Jersey.
Brooke is a self-proclaimed autodidact (that’s why she didn’t need to go to college) who works as a SoulCycle instructor who also freelance interior decorates. She has aspirations of opening a restaurant that is also a store and a place to get a haircut. Brooke is also selling "so many things," twittering her mediocre thoughts, and wondering aloud if she should open a cabaret hall called “High Standards” where she sings all the standards. “That’s clever,” Tracy shouts. Brooke speaks breathlessly, enthusiastically. She wears flowing silk blouses and can hold her liquor.
To Tracy, wide-eyed, naïve, and, upon meeting Brooke, beaming, Brooke is a tumbleweed of sophistication, creativity, and energy: “Being around her was like being in New York City,” Tracy narrates, and I eyerolled in my seat. Getting rejected from the literary society, procrastinating her schoolwork, and feeling underwhelmed by college, Tracy spends one night with Brooke and suddenly is rejuvenated and charmed by the glittering world of a thirty-something who “lives as a young woman should,” has a relentless vault of dreams and ideas, and who sees life as an opportunity, not a disappointment.
Of course, not all that glitters is gold (I think Tracy actually says that in voiceover) and the reality that is painfully obvious to the audience when Brooke first ambles down the steps in Times Square sets in for young Tracy: Brooke is actually a huge asshole. She’s self-obsessed, unapologetically cheats on her boyfriend, can’t hold down a steady job, uses her friends before unfeelingly disposing of them, has a history of bullying people in high school, and worst of all, claims she doesn’t need therapy because “there’s nothing she doesn’t know about herself.” Her charm is actually whiny desperation, and she represents not New York City but instead everything that’s wrong with what my mother deems “your generation.”
The twist in Mistress America is what all those twists are with writer-narrators: through the putting down of a story, the writer becomes aware that perhaps she is just as flawed as the character she has constructed. That’s what happens to Tracy, because at Brooke’s urging, she forcefully kisses a young man she meets at college despite his girlfriend’s existence. She also writes an offensive short story about Brooke as a means to enter a literary society, even though it’s a pompous group of jerks who carry briefcases and don Warby Parker frames and who rejected her the first time. I guess, of course, that’s the point: that writing a story that defames someone will get you into the club of people who make it their business to be jerks, and then there you are, also a jerk, but at least your talent is recognized.
Performances were OK. Greta Gerwig is fun to watch in a painful sort of way. Her Brooke is dressed well but also clearly broken inside, exactly what Brooke is supposed to be. She’s clumsy and confident at the same time, making it clear her arrogance is masking insecurity. Lola Kirke's Tracy is also awkward, although she is unable to cover it with any believable amount of bravado. Tracy doesn’t change much in the film, except that she quits the writing society in order to make herself feel better for diatribing Brooke.
A pivotal plot development is that Brooke must make amends with her old friend Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who according to Brooke stole her fiancé, her idea for hipster flowers on t-shirts at J. Crew and “literally” her cats. It is on this journey to Connecticut, to make peace with Mamie Claire and also ask for money to start the new restaurant, that Tracy really begins to understand Brooke — flaws and all — and casts her for what she is (an asshole) in her short story. The visit ends with Brooke’s former fiancé telling her to just not go through with the restaurant — he’ll pay her not to do it — and then everyone gathering around reading Tracy’s story about Brooke and finding it offensive to women.
In nineteenth-century British novels, characters who don’t belong in British society are shipped off to Australia, or sometimes America or Canada. It’s a trope much like literally everything that happens in Mistress America, and unsurprisingly, Brooke is sent off to California by the end of the film. On Thanksgiving Day, she is packing up the commercial apartment in Times Square she illegally holds as a residence when Tracy comes looking for her to make amends for the mean story she wrote. Brooke forgives her; they tell each other they’re smart, and then they share a meal together and giggle about things. We don’t hear what they talk about because music is playing and it’s supposed to be sentimental and conclusive.
Mistress America has been called “screwball” by many critics — it has fast-paced dialogue and sort of larger than life scenarios — and it does fit that description, although it doesn’t attempt to echo anything of a classic screwball comedy. Instead, it proves that we — or at least people who live in New York — are soulless, cardboard people with an unquenchable and unreachable desire to be unique and notorious. Our only hope is moving to California. It’s best not to write that story.
Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.
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