Noah Baumbach can't quite find the words to describe his fruitful filmmaking partnership with actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig. “It's hard to articulate really,” he says over the phone from New York City while doing press for their new film, Mistress America. “On both of our projects together we've schemed the same movie from the early stages. I think this is the most important part of collaborating. It's essential that you are on the same page, that you're writing the movie in one voice.”
Considering the woozy charm and spitfire charisma of Mistress America and their previous collaboration, Frances Ha, it's clear Baumbach and Gerwig were made for each other.
“We have something that clicks that way for us,” Baumbach says. Tonally, their two comedies feel at peace with uncertainty and doubt. This is a far cry from the director's previous work like Margot at the Wedding and Squid and the Whale, both of which view the world through an anxious and cynical lens.
When asked if Gerwig's influence has made him a more hopeful filmmaker, Baumbach balks: “People have pointed that out to me, but I think all of my movies are hopeful, at least relatively so.” Still, there's no denying the luminescent performer has given Baumbach's recent efforts a spritely quality, or “fizzier,” as he puts it. She embodies this sense of hope more overtly without compromising any of the complexity of their characterizations.
Mistress America is very much about the way we use art and language to cope with transition and deflect responsibility. Lola Kirke stars as Tracy, a freshman college student living in New York City whose mother plans to re-marry. The groom has a grown daughter of his own named Brooke (Gerwig) who resides in Times Square of all places. The two soon-to-be sisters-in-law decide to meet up after Tracy's first semester at college takes a disappointing turn.
An insecure upstart writer in search of an identity, Tracy feels empowered after hanging out with Brooke, a kind of modern Renaissance woman who, as one character puts it, “does everything and nothing.” In this sense, Brooke has too many identities to count, shifting between hipster maven and businesswoman and back again on a moment's notice.
“For Tracy, Brooke is one of those people that you meet at the right time. Tracy is kind of vulnerable and open to be rescued,” Baumbach says. “Brooke is exciting and dangerous and seductive. When you're younger and unformed, meeting new people who are older is exciting. They seem to have it figured out in some way. But after a little bit you start to outgrow them.”
The inevitable conflict between Tracy and Brooke takes some surprising turns. What follows is a nutty and swift double comingof-age story that bobs and weaves like the best screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s. Dialogue unloads like machine gun fire and the narrative shifts more than once to accommodate the characters' volatile decision-making. Midway through the film Brooke decides to visit a couple from her past hoping to guilt them into financing her latest business venture.
Tracy and her constantly spatting college-age friends join Brooke on a journey upstate. They find themselves at a mansion owned by Mimi Claire (Heather Lind) and her wealthy husband Dylan (Michael Chernus). Here, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a different kind of mania unfolds. Multiple romantic conflicts come to a head in what proves to be one of Baumbach's most complex sequences.
“In writing it we had to figure out what that scene was actually about,” he says. “When we got to the middle part of the story there were a lot of different ways it could go. We had to figure out how to make the shift seem unexpected but also satisfying.” Directing a sequence with so many actors and lines of dialogue also provided its own logistical challenges.
“I wanted to shoot it in a way that it would preserve much of this real timing as possible,” Baumbach says. “I didn't want to rely on editing to speed it up. I wanted the actors to move and speak as quickly as possible. That's some of the pleasure of those screwball comedies. You really feel the performers in it.” Expectedly, the actors make the timing look effortless. Gerwig is especially dynamic, exploring her character's vulnerabilities without ever sacrificing the nuances of Brooke's larger-than-life personality.
Such a sudden shift in setting and structure is reminiscent of Preston Sturges' masterpiece, The Palm Beach Story. When asked if the film was an inspiration for Mistress America, Baumbach grows more energized: “I wasn't thinking about that film consciously but I know what you mean. I love that movie and that kind of twist in setting is true of a few of those screwball movies. Bringing Up Baby has an extended section set entirely inside a house. Structurally those movies almost seem to reinvent themselves as they go.”
As does Gerwig's Brooke.
Baumbach agrees: “I always saw this character as living outside of time. She's the kind of character Greta and I recognize from life, but also from movies and books. We saw Brooke as the type of person who was cursed with a bit too much integrity. That's kind of her tragic flaw in a way. She can't compromise for the wrong reasons. It's what's appealing about her, but it's also her downfall.”
Mistress America, which opens on Friday, Aug. 28, paints Brooke (and in some respects Tracy) as a walking contradiction. And that's okay. Both have trouble following through, yet they are also fearless in their quest for fulfillment. Each has a flurry of ideas but sometimes pursues them in the wrong ways. Life is messy, and so is Baumbach and Gerwig's lovely film.
Except the key difference between Mistress America and the Baumbach canon of old is there's very little doubt things will eventually work out. Maybe this is another nod to the classic genre films of Hollywood's golden age? Or perhaps Baumbach has been enlivened by Gerwig's spirited presence? The smart bet would be on the latter. Baumbach finally finds the words. “It was always very pleasurable going down this road with Greta. She inspires me to be better.”