Mistress America is the second project of writer, director and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Noah Baumbach, working with eccentric actress and writer, Greta Gerwig. If their 2012 collaborative debut, the inspiring and wickedly entertaining Frances Ha, was anything to go by, then Mistress America was set to be a real triumph.
While it failed to challenge the effortless charm and whimsical feel of its predecessor, Baumbach and Gerwig demonstrated multiple comedic moments, and a kind of connection with one another as co-writers, which can, at times, be likened to that of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. This comparison has been made several times before, and with good reason. The use of New York City as a character in itself in Mistress America mirrors that of Allen’s Manhattan, a film that possesses similar themes of isolation, narcissism and existentialism.
Mistress America follows the experiences of step-sisters-to-be: Lonely college undergraduate Tracy and the glamorous and seemingly self-assured Brooke, played compellingly by Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig respectively, who exhibit truly believable on-screen chemistry. The screenplay was competent. It was occasionally philosophical. But most of all, it was relatable, from both Tracy’s and Brooke’s perspectives.
Despite this, many attempts at being profound often felt overwritten, leaving a feeling of awkwardness rather than poignancy. In addition, the naturalistic style in which the dialogue is written and delivered is definitely an area of potential disagreement between viewers, because I feel this aspect will either strongly appeal to or offend the viewer’s tastes.
One particularly admirable element of Mistress America, however, is its two character arcs, which expose radically different sides to our protagonists than those to which we are initially introduced: “You are much more of an asshole than you initially appear.”
The effective and carefully-thought-out characterisation of both Tracy and Brooke ensures a great deal of thematic depth in what could have easily been a film that merely overcompensates for its lack of a payoff. The pacing of the film accelerated considerably in the second half, which lent itself well to the dynamic, almost frenetic feel of both the city and its complex characters.
Mistress America should definitely be praised for its valiant efforts at humour, having created some hilarious moments. The addition of Orange Is The New Black’s Michael Chernus to the cast elevated this even further. The film manages to create simultaneously narcissistic and self-loathing characters, a technique that is perhaps capable of resonating with anybody who writes, paints or produces art.
If not for the script trying too hard at times to capture the same magnetic charm of Frances Ha, this film would likely prove just as successful as the former. In spite of this, Mistress America does indeed capture the difficulties of developing original ideas, struggling with criticism and mediocrity, and finding your place in the world, and it should be praised for doing so. Lovers of all things quaint and quirky will undoubtedly appreciate this film, but for a wider audience it may just miss the mark.