An Other Woman (But Mostly the Same)
Some people have the kind of creativity and work ethic that leaves me slack-jawed and agog with incomprehension: I have spoken in the past of Michael Moorcock's fantasy-trilogy-in-a-fortnight regime of decades gone by; then of course there is the film-a-year routine of Woody Allen: in both cases, never mind the quality, feel the heft. (Writing one bad short novel a year often places an insupportable strain on my own creative juices.) Making what looks like a bid for the same kind of bracket is Noah Baumbach, who is releasing his second film as writer and director in less than six months.
The comparison with Allen feels particularly appropriate, given that both men seem drawn to a particular type of low-key New York comedy-drama. Baumbach's last film, While We're Young, still had a flavour of that about it, even though it featured mainstream stars and was a comparatively broad comedy. The new film, Mistress America, is more of a piece with his previous work, especially 2013's Frances Ha, and perhaps as a consequence feels even more Allenesque.
Like Frances Ha, Mistress America has Baumbach co-writing the script with his lead performer, Greta Gerwig (the pair have one of those enviable personal-professional partnerships), although this time the film is less self-consciously arty. Well, it's not in black and white, anyway.
That said, it's quite a long time before Gerwig turns up on screen, for the film's viewpoint character is Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young woman who has just started college in New York and is finding the experience to be not all she had hoped for. On top of her various academic and creative struggles (she is an aspiring writer), her mother is remarrying, leaving her with the prospect of a brand new stepsister. Eventually Tracy decides to meet her, discovering her impending sibling to be Brooke (Gerwig), one of those irresistible free-spirited types, of no particularly defined career but with plans to become a bohemian restauranteur. Tracy finds herself drawn to Brooke and the two become close friends, but could it be that neither of them is being completely honest with the other about their motivations? A downturn in Brooke's fortunes soon exposes the faultlines in their relationship...
Again like Frances Ha, Mistress America has drawn glowing reviews that I can't quite bring myself to entirely agree with. This is not to say that it's a bad film or indeed that there are many bad things in it, just that it has the same slightly unfocused quality as its forebear. The structure of the film is interesting, if a bit odd: the bookending acts of the story ramble around between a university campus and various places in the city, but the second act is confined entirely to the interior of a swish upmarket house somewhere else entirely - for the duration of this segment the film adopts the style and conventions of a screwball farce, with anything up to eight characters wandering about in a scene rattling off snappy and arch dialogue at each other. It is a very distinct change of style, for if nothing else farce is a precision artform, while in every other respect precision is not really one of Mistress America's virtues.
For me it was never really clear exactly what kind of film this was supposed to be - a college-years coming of age tale? Another wry piece about boho New Yorkers? A comedy of manners? A character piece? A full-on farce? The script touches on all of these things, while the direction changes pace and focus with equal deftness: there's a particularly noticeable 80s vibe about some parts of the film, especially the soundtrack. But the film has a contemporary setting, and isn't about the 1980s in any real sense, so is this just because the film-makers thought it would sound distinctive and cool? You may be wondering just why the film is called Mistress America: well, it's the title of a short story Tracy secretly writes about Brooke, based on one of her more off-the-wall ideas for a TV show. This is of some relevance to the plot, but it still feels like an oblique and slightly arbitrary choice of title - a placeholder name they never quite got around to changing.
While I was never completely sure what kind of film this is supposed to be, or indeed what it's about, I did enjoy watching it a lot, in a sort of living-in-the-moment kind of way. I will happily watch Greta Gerwig in just about anything (has anyone thought about giving her the title role in the forthcoming Captain Marvel?), and she is on customarily fine form here, milking her big comic scenes for all they are worth, while still managing to extract pathos and poignancy from the film's quieter moments. She is well supported by Kirke, who is just as good in what's an equally demanding part, while the various supporting performances are all fine. The film is frequently amusing and actually made me laugh quite a few times.
So all in all I would say that Mistress America is pretty good, and certainly more accessible and funny than Frances Ha. It still has the same rambling, rough around the edges quality in places, but here there is more wit and colour, and more of a sense of fun. If Baumbach and Gerwig keep plugging away in this vein they may yet come up with something very special and genuinely accomplished, but until they do, Mistress America is a smart and low-key comedy that passes the time very pleasantly indeed.