It is less than six months since While We’re Young graced our nation’s screens, and already we have another offering from Mr. Baumbach? Incroyable! This time around Baumbach has re-teamed with his real life teammate, and Francis Ha collaborator, the indomitable Greta Gerwig. Like that film, Mistress America concentrates on Gerwig as a seemingly unflappable striver, besotted with more ambition than good sense, and focuses on her attempts to climb, if not every mountain, at least the social ladder of the Big Apple, such as it is in 2015 (that is, there’s a lot of horizontal clamoring from one social media platform to another). The mode of Francis Ha was a bit more down to earth, a bit more realistic, a bit more subdued in its portrayal of a woman trying to exceed herself – the performances were relatively toned down, the main character more vulnerable, the city more shaded in grey (indeed, Mistress America is the only case I can think of with a reverse bait and switch, as the trailer I saw earlier in the summer was in black and white, but the resulting feature in color). So, yes, if you are expecting Francis Ha Part Deux, you will be disappointed, but there are many moments of bleed over. A more useful comparison might be the more recent While We’re Young, however, as it allows us to sample Baumbach solo against Baumbach plus femme. And let me break it to you right up front – for the most part, Baumbach is better with Gerwig as a cowriter. One of the problems with While We’re Young (and, come to think of it, almost all of Baumbach’s films in the past 15 years) is that the female characters are underwritten and have little to do except act as sounding boards and useful narrative devices for the male characters. (Yes, there is Margot at her sister’s wedding, but the less we speak of her, the better, for both our own and Mr. Baumbach’s sake). With Gerwig on board, females move front and center – in Mistress America, it is the men who serve as backdrop and mirrors for the female characters. The plot concerns a neophyte New Yorker, Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18 year old recently arrived at Barnard from suburban New Jersey. The first quarter of the film concerns her attempts to get her bearings at college, where she feels out of place and struggles to fit in (whatever that might mean). She strikes up a friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear), a similarly literary type who also shares her seeming middle-class roots; over screwdrivers, they swap stories which they hope to get into Columbia’s literary magazine. At first this alleviates her alienation, but she soon discovers, much to her chagrin, that Tony has a girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Feeling rootless once again, Tracy takes her mother’s advice, and contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke immediately takes Tracy out for what is supposed to be a crazy, enchanting introductory night on the town, and by the end of the evening, Tracy is smitten, crushing on older, charming, “kooky” Brooke while Brooke relishes having a protege and an always interested ear. Soon Tracy is crashing at Brooke’s place in Times Square (which is zoned commercial – yowza!) and, while not ignoring her studies, is definitely more invested in living vicariously through Brooke than striking out on her own. Her early story rejected by the literary mag, Tracy makes use of Brooke as a character in a new composition, an act of self-assertion that will eventually come back to bite her. The rest of the movie revolves around Brooke’s attempt to get a fledgling restaurant (to be named Mom’s) off the ground, as the financing originally provided by her unseen Russian boyfriend falls through when he, apparently, breaks up with her (she returns to the edgy domicile one night to find the locks changed, but somehow seems to continue living there, after having to pathetically crash in Tracy’s dorm room for an evening). To secure the now absent financing, she is directed by a medium to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, for a visit to a well-off frenemy who formerly stole Brooke’s even richer fiancé, along with a golden idea for graphic t-shirts. The second half of the movie portrays this road trip, with Tony and Nicolette along for the ride (as Tony provides the ride, and jealous, suspicious Nicolette won’t let Tony out of her sight). The quartet arrive just in time to crash an art discussion group slash pregnancy coffee klatch, and during a long, awkward afternoon, Brooke pitches her idea first to her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and then to her more enthusiastic ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). Banter zings and pings off the walls, and the occupants of this modernist house on a green hill are joined by expectant lawyer waiting for a ride home Karen (Cindy Cheung) and intruding neighbor Harold (Dean Wareham, making the most of his return to official Baumbach supporting player status). The core group, observed and commented on by this peanut gallery, work over past animosities, try to reconcile old grievances, and make new plans for the future. Some hatchets will be buried, and others will be brandished; by the end of the evening, all will have turned against Tracy, as Nicolette reveals to the group the former’s unflattering “fictional” portrayal of Brooke, and Brooke will reveal that she and Tracy are no longer step-relations to be (as her father has called off the impending marriage to Tracy’s Mom, who apparently does not have it going on). In the denouement, Brooke returns without her restaurant money (as Dylan is willing to give it to her only if she does not start a restaurant, instead proposing, not so subtly, that she take on the role of his city lady in waiting), and Tracy gets into the literary society she yearned for. Tracy feels unsatisfied, though, and rather than sell out as a literary phony, she rejects the Columbians and files to start her own society of letters the next semester. She makes up with Brooke, who she once characterized as a failure, now recognizing her as a success in providing the zing, not to say the tang, to the unimaginative, bored rich who are her obvious inferiors.
The first half hour of the movie is, like Brooke, very striving. The cutting is so fast, and the dialogue piles up so quickly, that we could be forgiven for thinking we are still watching the trailer; we begin to wonder if the movie will ever take a breath, settle down, and recognize what the word expose is doing inside expository. It has the form of an ersatz screwball comedy, but without the laughs, or the debonair sheen of old Hollywood money. It is “witty,” but like much Baumbach, it is hard to detect if this is the real McCoy, or a simulacra of intelligent humor (we suspect the later, as we are rarely laughing). This reveals what is perhaps the key feature of Baumbach’s work, for good and for bad – the inability to discern if his characters are parodies, if he is a satirist and is using his characters as a means to splay open the unattractive guts of upwardly mobile wannabes, or if he is identifying with them, and takes their foibles and follies to be endearing, humanizing traits. Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. Early in Brooke and Tracy’s whirlwind romance, they are in a bar having a drink (in Baumbach’s world, IDs never figure, apparently) and are approached by a woman who happened to have gone to high school with Brooke. At first it seems like it will be a pleasant reunion, but the woman soon takes Brooke to task for having tormented her back in the day by continually approaching her with a similarly too cool male pal, touching her skin, tasting it, and saying, “Mmm-hmm, bitter.” Brooke has no recall as to who the woman is until this jogs her memory, but her response to the woman’s request for an apology is, to say the least, no. (No luck with sympathy or recognition of grievance either). After a few rounds of yelling at each other, Brooke returns to her conversation with Tracy, dismissing the whole thing by rationalizing, “Everybody’s an asshole to someone else sometimes.” (A classic from the great American songbook, if I do recall). Tracy seems to pause over this for a second, then quickly accepts it and moves on, as does the movie. What are we, as the audience, to make of the exchange? The behavior is off-putting; we already understand that Brooke is not the type of person for deep reflection, but this introduces a negative aspect to what has been, up to this point, the key to her “charm.” Is Baumbach identifying with her – that is, can he imagine a world where no, not everyone is an asshole to someone at some time? (There is a difference between treating someone poorly with regrets and being purposefully and unapologetically cruel). Or is Baumbach satirizing the type of person so ensconced in her own cocoon of privilege, or so self-involved, that she is blind to another’s suffering? Baumbach does not portray the aggrieved as being unreasonable, and goes to pains, via the woman’s monologue, to elaborate the negative effect the teasing had on her. This would lead us to believe that Baumbach is in the later mode, satirizing blindness and narcissism, but the fact that this is pretty much a one-off, and that nothing ever builds from it, makes it seem as if it’s yet another quirky nugget, another facet of Brooke’s “charm” to be mined for warm laughs and cuteness. I won’t say it leaves a sour taste, but it does recall the flavor of his earlier films where being mean, being funny, and being close and intimate are all pretty much the same thing.
Thus the tone of the film never resolves, even as the plot does, and we are left wondering if we should actually care about these characters (as it certainly doesn’t come naturally) or if we should laugh at their lack of insight and general self-satisfaction. The problem is further amplified by the fact that, while many of the characters do lack insight and are self-satisfied insofar as nothing will deter them from their generally static natures, they are vulnerable. If there is one great theme to Baumbach’s work, and one that he elaborates with some nuance, it is masked insecurity – which, at the other end of his dialectic, becomes a preoccupation with intellectual, artistic, or social status, and with characters who are, or fear they are, legends in their own minds. In his films from earlier in the millennium, this masking might take the form of cruelty and meanness, whereas lately its form (pace Gerwig) has been charm, klutziness, and befuddlement. In both modes, though, it expresses itself through a preoccupation with a kind of arrested development, which is why his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about post-collegiate angst and anomie, somehow remains the genetic blueprint for all further films. It certainly helps explain why he rarely makes a movie about anyone over the age of 30. He is quite effective at portraying the limitations, which go hand in hand with the expectations, of our current age, and the frustration that smart, creative people feel in a world of constant exhibitionism when their talents are recognized by few and often left unrewarded. But what is he saying about this problem? It is hard to tell. We end Mistress America with Tracy’s recognition still waiting in the wings, as she is too young and unresolved to feel herself a failure (although the prospect preoccupies her, which is part of her interest in Brooke). Brooke ends up not speaking for herself (yet another movie with voice-over, yippee!), but is proclaimed fabulous by Tracy as a kind of diamond in the rough, an occult tchotchke whose powers those lessers she encounters, who lack her moxie and verve, make use of as a kind of talisman. But it is also quite possible that Tracy and Brooke are an army of two, clueless and static, legends in their own minds because they are unable to adapt to the world as it is, or, even more mundanely, simply two people who can’t accept that they might not be as great as they’d like to think they are. In this way, Baumbach is our leading expositor of the fear of mediocrity. Or is he? Perhaps he thinks that Brooke has it all figured out in her continual thrashing about. Like Woody Allen, a filmmaker he resembles in passing (the banter in the second half of the film is very Allen-like, and often very funny), one senses that it is Baumbach’s self-doubt that drives his representations. Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach seems to be hedging his bets, and playing it coy – “I’m not all that,” he seems to say, “unless you’d like to think I am!” Both Allen and Baumbach make films driven by a kind of autobiographical impetus, but Allen has always been firmly in the mode of self-abnegation (or at least self-deprecation). Baumbach is too, on the surface, but with a bitterness that makes one feel he is insincere about it; he’s going through the motions, but secretly he’d be happy to discover that he’s great, the hero of his own story, the genius who everyone loves and lavishes praise on despite his (not so?) hidden churlishness. Is he, in this way, the great reflexive filmmaker of his generation? I’m sure he’d like to think so – but it is this very characteristic that leaves his films feeling light, fluffy, and unsatisfying, even as they feel heavy and leaden in their misanthropic undertones.