There was a time when New York-based indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) was known for perceptive but mostly downbeat movies featuring distinctly unlikable characters. That was before he met actress and fellow filmmaker Greta Gerwig, whom Baumbach cast in his 2010 film Greenberg (which features Ben Stiller as the most despicable Baumbach character of all). Gerwig soon became Baumbach's screenwriting partner and significant other. The result has been two remarkable films starring Gerwig — 2013's Frances Ha and now Mistress America — that represent a major shift in Baumbach's career. The insightful portraits of neurotic New Yorkers remain but the caustic central characters are nowhere in sight.
Gerwig's natural charm and charisma helped make the transition possible. But there's a lot more going on in Mistress America than an appealing actress in a likable role. Baumbach's continuing debt to Woody Allen's classic early films never bore sweeter fruit — Mistress America's funniest moments mostly arrive in the form of offhand observations that would make Annie Hall's Alvy "Max" Singer proud, even as its snappy repartee and tightly choreographed scenes recall the great screwball comedies from Hollywood's golden age.
By the time the story reaches a late peak of absurdity as its large and motley crew of New Yorkers dissect a moral dilemma in the unlikely setting of a Greenwich, Connecticut mansion, we have officially entered Wes Anderson territory. (Baumbach co-wrote Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Anderson's career- changing film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, so he comes by the source material honestly.) Gerwig's knack for making audiences care about the characters she creates brings all these elements together and allows Mistress America to pack a lot of fun into a brisk 86 minutes.
Gerwig's Brooke is a character most us have known at some point in our lives: outwardly confident and brimming with life, she knows everyone and seems to have the world on a string. (She's about to open a combination restaurant/hair salon/art gallery/community center in a hip part of town.) But the truth is more complicated. We see her through the eyes of her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke), a suburban kid just arrived at Barnard College who has not found the anticipated adventure of New York City — until she meets Brooke. Tracy's evolving perceptions of her new friend drive the story and push events in unanticipated directions.
All of Baumbach's recent films distill something of the era's frenzied, social media-driven culture as few others have managed to do. Even better, the stories told in Frances Ha and Mistress America hinge on close friendships between two women, reminding us how infrequently even smart independent films rely on strong female characters. (Gerwig's screenwriting credits must have something to do with that.) Both Frances Ha and Mistress America are original and inspired enough to make you hope the Baumbach-Gerwig partnership generates a whole bunch more films. Successful male-female creative collaborations sure sound like something the film industry desperately needs.