Roughly two-thirds into Mistress America a series of characters criticize another’s short story. Mainly for being shallow plagiarism, but of all the harsh criticism hurled at the author, the line, “Just like the rest of your generation; everything a pastiche” lands closest to home. Not because the author in question takes it bitterly, but because it is the criticism that the author of Mistress America seems to hurtle at himself.
Mistress America — director Noah Baumbach’s tenth feature film and second collaboration with co-writer and star, Greta Gerwig — revolves around two young women, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Gerwig), whose parents are about the get married, making them future stepsisters. Tracy is 18, a freshman at Barnsdale College, an aspiring writer and unfamiliar in the world of sex, drink and New York City. Brooke is the complete opposite. She’s never went to college, was engaged once and currently lives in Time Square, in a flat originally zoned commercially. Brooke is the embodiment of the self-made person, and she’ll tell you all about it, if you give her the chance.
Tracy is enchanted, but simply following in Brooke’s wake is not enough. Nor is embodying her. What Tracy wants is to use her. Brooke is an unfocused and inexhaustible spirit, constantly dreaming, but never producing and Tracy immediately identifies Brooke as a literary character. If Tracy can contain 10% of Brooke on a 8½x11 sheet of paper, then she is in business.
And that is precisely what Tracy does, committing Brooke to the page in the form of a short story, entitled Mistress America — a line tossed off from Brooke. From their relationship, Tracy steals to further her career while Brooke produces more material for Tracy’s story. Tracy even fuels these ideas, possibly in hopes of gaining more material for her story.
But this is not all of what Mistress America is, not by a long shot. Like the screwball comedies of yesteryear, Baumbach wedges more characters and situations around the Tracy/Brooke dynamic, heightening the tension by involving more and more players and throwing in a road trip to Connecticut for good measure. But amidst all of these very vocal voices, Mistress America opens and closes around Tracy and Brooke, one character ready to go places, one stuck, but neither seems to know who is which.
While this relationship provides an entertaining core of Mistress America, Buambach’s complications return to that biting criticism of, “Just like the rest of your generation; everything a pastiche.” Incorporating aspects of Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard and Preston Sturges to prop Mistress America up, this pastiche adds little to Baumbach’s style and in Mistress America, style is what Baumbach seems to be searching for.
He found it in Frances Ha and While We’re Young, and he’ll find it again (hopefully with Gerwig), but in the meantime, Mistress America delivers just enough laughs to keep the Baumbach faithful satiated. The rest, probably not.