It’s a 90-year-old song lyric, but Lorenz Hart’s description of Manhattan (from the song “Manhattan”) as a “wondrous toy” holds newfound allure for the bright young things — 21st century moderns — populating Noah Baumbach’s latest chamber-screwball outing, “Mistress America.”
In “Frances Ha,” director and co-writer Baumbach’s previous collaboration with co-writer, star and romantic partner Greta Gerwig, the protagonist was a sweet, creative, thwarted charmer riding whatever waves and whatever breaks she could catch in New York City. “Mistress America” takes its lead from a related character type, though this time Gerwig’s role is more of a social winner, the self-styled life of every party, whether she had a hand in planning it or not.
“I hear she’s fun” is the word on Brooke, and it’s all the lonely Columbia University freshman, Tracy, played by Lola Kirke, has to go on. Brooke is soon to become Tracy’s sister-in-law. “Mistress America” takes its title from a TV show superheroine invented by Brooke (though she has yet to write the pilot, or the comic book). Baumbach wants to celebrate this charismatic gadfly, but also take her down a peg or two. The movie’s a bittersweet comic fable about how Brooke becomes Tracy’s entry into a wider world and how they come to a crisis point that is both serious and amusing.
Mainly it’s about fast and brittle talk, a lot of it peachy. The dialogue has one ear on the screwball ’30s, the other on the way people actually speak when their minds are racing faster than their lives can carry them. “I want to write short stories,” Tracy tells Brooke early on. “Oh, me too!” Brooke replies, breathlessly, adding: “Not short stories, though.”
Tracy’s first year in college comes with a super-surly roommate and a friendship with a pleasantly affected, literature-minded boy (Matthew Shear), who soon starts spending time with someone new (Jasmine Cephas Jones, a scowl on legs). There’s a snobby literary society Tracy wants very badly to join. Eventually she writes a story about her adventures with her sister-in-law-to-be, but by the time she finishes it, Brooke’s multidirectional pursuits have grown a little wearing. Brooke’s searching for backers for a restaurant/hair salon hybrid called Mom’s. Tracy’s story, cannibalizing her superheroine’s exploits, is meant to remain a secret, but it doesn’t work out that way.
The major characters take a road trip to Greenwich, Conn., for the somewhat wobbly final third of “Mistress America.” The complications have to do with Brooke’s millionaire ex (Michael Chernus) and his terrifyingly well-put-together wife (Heather Lind), who stole Brooke’s idea for a line of T-shirts. Here the film, dominated by Gerwig and Kirke’s exceptional, easy chemistry, shifts gears and becomes a consciously old-fashioned Kaufman and Hart (different Hart — Moss, not Lorenz) comedy set in a swank country home. It doesn’t quite come off. A different, less cerebral director might’ve found a way to visually activate the Connecticut scenes, and the writing’s more functional than inspired in this section.
A Baumbach film, its characters alternately driven and held back by their particular longings and resentments, only allows for so much pure delight. This one, like many of his previous pictures ranging from good (“While We’re Young”) to very good (“Frances Ha”) to great (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg”), strives for an ambitious blend of high comedy and mordant wit. Gerwig and Baumbach have discussed their influences in various interviews, citing everything from “Bringing Up Baby” to “Something Wild” and John Hughes movies. Baumbach’s peak achievements seem only like Baumbach to me, wholly their own creations. Yet even the artifice of “Mistress America” has its charms. Kirke, both a watcher and a doer, is a natural. And Gerwig’s unpredictable, unerring comic timing informs a quality all too rare in modern movies: She’s a throwback who only looks forward.
3.5 stars out of 5
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Director: Noah Baumbach.
Running time: 1:24.
Rated: R, for language including some sexual references.