Mistress America

Mistress America is the film Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig were trying to make when they made Frances Ha three years ago – or at least I enjoyed it much, much more. It extends Baumbach’s winning streak of films about contemporary New York. (He directed both, co-written and starring Gerwig, and he wrote and directed the more ambitious While We’re Young in between.)

The New York in their films is a city of lost people looking for work, or looking for an affordable apartment that isn’t a construction zone, but first they have to find an ATM. It’s full of storage spaces, insecure college students, and artists trying to keep some idealism while surrounded by wealthy or overpaid people living a simulacrum of la vie boheme, forcing real life bohemians to get out of town. It’s more like the real New York than the world created by any other major indie filmmakers going right now.

That’s what I attribute the success of Frances Ha to – a hunger to see this landscape on film – and why I wanted to like it so much more than I actually did. Gerwig’s Frances is an element of a character, a type, a good-hearted late 20s dancer who isn’t close to “making it work,” finding the right cog in the big machine. Despite her irresistible charm, everything’s harder for her, and her jokes fall flat, all good bits of characterization.

When you put an oblique presence like that in the protagonist role, it swallows the story. The setbacks and episodes in the plot start seeming incidental, like she’ll arrive at wherever she’s going with or without the action you’re witnessing. That, and the New Wave homages seemed lazy, a touch of levity grafted onto a comedy that lacked laughs.

In Mistress America, they make the protagonist a younger woman who encounters the element: Lonely, nerdy Barnard freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) reaches out to her step-sister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig), another free spirit who’s taller on charisma and sexiness than Frances was, but just as short on level-headedness. By placing the arc of the story inside a character with clearer wants – and who’s more clearly a fish out of water – you get to explore the element without wondering what the hell you’re watching.

Off to see the wizard: Michael Chernus with Greta Gerwig (left) and Lola Kirke (right).

Off to see the wizard: Michael Chernus with Greta Gerwig (left) and Lola Kirke (right).

And then Gerwig and Baumbach take you someplace much grander, when the story accelerates into a farcical road trip to Greenwich, where Tracy helps Brooke pitch her restaurant idea to her wealthy ex-boyfriend. Partly it works because Michael Chernus, the actor playing the ex, delivers such a gorgeous skewering of a certain kind of Wall Street meathead. He is the wizard in this Oz, and like all wizards, he’s a blowhard of mythic proportions, but the smugness of his self-satisfied air reeks, to anyone who’s ever tried raising money, stinking up the whole Emerald City.

Partly it works because the writers have assembled enough moving parts in the finale, that they have so much material to keep the laughs coming. It’s like a Mike Leigh finale, but funnier, since the premise is more modest, more undergraduate angst than social realist gravity. Brilliant stuff.