There's a sweetness to Mistress America but also a sourness that is both off-putting and arresting. The movie explores an appealing, flighty character and at the same time passes judgment on her. And the judgment, oddly enough, isn't a moral judgment, but one that assesses the character's prospects for success.
It makes you wonder about Noah Baumbach, who directed and co-wrote the film. If Baumbach directed a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany's, would his point be that Holly Golightly will never become rich and famous? That she'll never get to buy those diamonds in the window? As an artist, he is attracted to dreamers and fantasists but can't resist puncturing their illusions and presenting them as losers. He pities his characters, and his pity has nothing to do with sympathy. It's very close to scorn.
Fortunately, Baumbach is now collaborating with actress-writer Greta Gerwig, and she is bringing a different accent to his work. Gerwig co-wrote Mistress America, just as she co-wrote Baumbach's best film, Frances Ha, and in both you get the sense that maybe, just maybe, a human being's entire worth can't be summed up in a résumé. Maybe not everything in life can be monetized, and maybe people who dream aren't all destined to wake up miserable.
I say "maybe" because Mistress America is not quite decided on that score. It tells the story of a lonely college freshman who falls under the spell of her future stepsister (their parents are about to be married), a 30-year-old woman who lives in Times Square. Brooke (Gerwig) talks nonstop and seems to know everyone. She goes out every night, teaches spin classes at a health club and talks about her plans to open a restaurant called Moms, which she envisions as a kind of urban refuge/community center.
The college student, Tracy (Lola Kirke), is dazzled by Brooke enough to want to be around her constantly, but not so much that she doesn't see through her. For example, from their first meeting, Tracy doubts that Brooke will ever open her restaurant. And sure enough, some backing falls through. When Brooke goes in search of $75,000 from a rich ex-boyfriend whose heart she broke — and brings along a makeshift entourage of Tracy and her friends — Mistress America goes from a light comedy to farce, but it makes the transition smoothly.
Gerwig is a delight in the titular role, but to see Mistress America is to feel protective of the character she plays, and a little annoyed at the way Baumbach treats her. Not everyone who is glamorous stays glamorous. Not everyone who exudes promise completely fulfills her promise. And no one who starts out young, stays young. They die or get old. Baumbach's tendency to offer up, as the ultimate statement about a character, the fact that they will never become the raging success they expected to be is not evidence of any wisdom or perspective on Baumbach's part, but of a narrow and reductive vision.
Gerwig is able to soften this by leaving the audience with the memory of her energy and radiance. She makes all the difference. Still, one can't help but come away wondering what a 100 percent Greta Gerwig movie might be like, one that she directed and wrote by herself.