Living in a Song

Noam Baumbach and Greta Gerwig gives us a familiar yet engaging story in Mistress America

click to enlarge Greta Gerwig teams up once again with director Noah Baumbach in Mistress America.
Greta Gerwig teams up once again with director Noah Baumbach in Mistress America.

In Noah Baumbach's second release in one calendar year, following the bitter-tasting, olds-against-the-millennials comedy While We're Young, he and co-screenwriter/star Greta Gerwig borrow bullet points from Breakfast at Tiffany's: A naïf writer falls under the spell of a self-invented Manhattan party girl who scrapes by on the largesse of others.

Gerwig plays Brooke, the Holly Golightly type, getting a little long in the tooth. In their previous collaboration, Frances Ha, Baumbach and Gerwig dreamt up a woman defined by her free-wheeling spirit; in contrast, Gerwig's character here is bursting with plans — for an ironic T-shirt line, a TV show, a restaurant-slash-barbershop-slash-community center — but deflates on the follow-through. Yet Brooke moves through the world with the confidence of someone who's certain she's destined for greatness. She's her own unreliable narrator.

Brooke is a great character, and Tracy (Lola Kirke), a hopeful writer, is smart to spark to her. A freshman at Barnard College, she aims to gain admittance to a secret, briefcase-toting literary society, in a subplot dressed in the deadpan-bemused tonality tics of Wes Anderson, another sometimes-collaborator of Baumbach's. When Tracy first meets Brooke — her soon-to-be stepsister, in what appears to be a hasty marriage between Tracy's divorced mom and Brooke's widower father — her eyes are wide with the thrill of Brooke's seemingly charmed, quasi-boho lifestyle. But Tracy's also a sponge, and a cutthroat. Like every writer, she steals her stories from real life, and she rightly suspects Brooke will make for a hell of a story.

When Gerwig is in the frame, the film has an antic — sometimes frantic — screwball vibe, mellowed only by the terrific, 1980s-slanting synth score by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. She can be a bit much, the chaos that surrounds her a bit cartoonish, and the filmmakers are savvy to that fact. This isn't Brooke's story, and that's a good thing. A muse is only as interesting as her impact on the artist — and we glean enough from Tracy's writing, and from Kirke's portrayal (age-appropriate immature, but alert and cautiously licking the edge of transgressive) to sense she's a real talent in the making. Mistress America may be Baumbach's most probing consideration of the writer's process and development, a continuing point of interest in his filmography, from Kicking and Screaming to The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.

"We look like we're in a song," Tracy observes in a scenic moment shared with a classmate. It's a moment in which she plausibly might have been kissed. But she pauses it to reframe real-life experience through the prism of art, something she'll do again and again — owl-eyed and present, but removed. She's a born writer. ♦

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