Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2015), starts off not unlike most of Baumbach’s earlier work, especially Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2012). Like Frances, Mistress America is about two millennial women trying to survive in New York City. Like Frances, there is a division between the two women before they reconcile. Like Frances, Greta Gerwig plays the flightier of the two women. Unlike Frances, there is an entire second act set piece that changes the course of the film and acts as a cinematic juxtaposition to what we saw in the first act. It’s a very brazen shift to have in the middle of your narrative and one that should take the film off the rails. For about half the runtime, Baumbach eschews his typical tone and style and moves toward something more akin to Ernst Lubitsch. Baumbach makes half, and only half, of Mistress America a screwball comedy.
The screwball portion of the film begins when Gerwig’s character Brooke, Lola Kirke’s character Tracy, and two of Tracy’s friends go to a mansion in Connecticut so Brooke can get money from a former friend of hers. As soon as the setting changes, the tone of the film changes as well. The dialogue gets a little more rapid. The gestures are a little more exaggerated. A new character is introduced whose main purpose is to try and leave the situation before being hilariously foiled at every opportunity. It’s a slight shift from a witty, observational comedy into a madcap neo-screwball, but it is a noticeable shift.
The interesting aspect of this tonal switch is not only the fact that it is a brave undertaking on Baumbach’s part, but it is what this switch represents inside the structure of the film. As this part of the film is beginning, major changes are happening in the relationships to the characters. For most of the film, Tracy and Brooke think their parents are about to get married and that they are about to become step-sisters before Brooke finds out at the mansion that that is no longer the case. There is a mutual flirtation between Tracy and one of her friends that ends decisively at the mansion. Most importantly, this is where Tracy and Brooke’s relationship disintegrates after the latter discovers the story the former wrote about her. The film shifts genre when the events of the narrative shift, creating an interesting duality between narrative and the cinematic form.
The fact this shift is effective is not only as a show of the immense cinematic understanding Baumbach possesses, but it also shows his willingness to take a film that is working and try to see if you can do something completely different within the same film and still have it work. It is an experiment that not many other filmmakers are willing to attempt, and it is one of the reasons Baumbach is one of America’s most interesting filmmakers.
Mistress America is currently available to stream on most Video On Demand services.