Woody Allen churns out a movie each year whether or not he has fresh insights to share or a story worth telling. He's a slacker, however, compared with directors such as Clint Eastwood, who frequently makes two films in one 12-month period. (Last year he did Jersey Boys and American Sniper, one of which was actually good.) This year it's Noah Baumbach who's pulled off the double play, and guess what: Both films he made are good.
Mistress America lacks the star power of last fall's While We're Young, but it has something more important — Greta Gerwig — and, largely for that reason, it's the superior picture. I've written before about the fortuitous effect Gerwig has had on the filmmaker in her roles as cowriter, leading lady, muse and life partner. So I'll add only that their latest collaboration proves conclusively and convulsively that 2012's highly praised Frances Ha was anything but a fluke. Gerwig and Baumbach's new creation is every bit as brilliantly observed, exquisitely scripted and just plain fun. It's the perfect companion piece.
This time around, the companions are Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who's just moved to New York, and Brooke (Gerwig), a thirtyish force of nature who initially appears to have the city wrapped around her little finger. Tracy's mother is engaged to Brooke's father, so the two will soon be stepsisters. That's as good an excuse as any to paint the town pink. The newcomer is dazzled by Brooke's lifestyle — tossing back cocktails in trendy night spots, jumping onstage to perform with a band and, later, returning to her loft for more drinks and more talk of her numerous, yet nebulous, projects.
In contrast to Tracy, who wants to be a writer, Brooke's all over the place. She tutors despite having skipped college ("I'm an autodidact," she announces in passing. "That word is one of the words I self-taught myself!"), attempts to tweet her way to fame, does interior design — or at least talks about doing it — works shifts at SoulCycle and plans to open a restaurant. Even the restaurant she envisions has ADD, combining a hipster bistro with a cultural center, a coffee shop and — why not? — a hair salon.
Gerwig has elevated the portrayal of gifted but scattered characters in search of themselves to an art form. Her performance is a thing of beauty, a flawless admixture of the comic and tragic. And Kirke, who had a small part in Gone Girl as the lowlife who robbed the conniving wife, establishes herself as an actor of considerable presence and skill. As the movie progresses, her character gradually becomes the central one.
That's because "Mistress America" turns out to be the title of a story Tracy writes. It's clearly based on Brooke and is far from flattering. Here's what a fluent filmmaker Baumbach has become over two decades: In the final act, he explores moral questions pertaining to intellectual property and creative honesty and simultaneously stages the most gut-busting set piece of his career.
Spoilers ahead: In that third act, Brooke barges in on her millionaire ex-boyfriend and his wife at their busy Connecticut mansion to pitch him on investing. Someone whips out a draft of the story — and, before Tracy can intervene, everyone in the crowded house is huddled around Brooke, reading it as she does. There's something about the sight of this unlikely gaggle looking over Brooke's shoulder as she discovers how her friend really sees her that's improbably hilarious. Until it's incredibly sad. Tracy finds herself on the receiving end of some harsh reviews.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to his own Mistress America, Baumbach hasn't had that problem.