There have been so many reviews of Mistress America that use the word ‘screwball’ that there are now more than enough reviews commenting on the fact. It could be true that writing at length to connect the film to that subgenre is one of the easiest things to do when confronted by a film like this. What do you say about a decent, reasonably funny Noah Baumbach film?
Mistress America follows the fortunes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), who has just started college in New York but hasn’t yet been able to fit in and make any real friends. She wants to be a writer and to be accepted into a close-knit elitist college literary journal. Desperate, she takes up with her mother’s new fiancée’s daughter Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and they become great friends. Brooke is full of ideas for self-improvement and business, but she is also madcap and an exaggerator. Tracy spends more time with Brooke than at university and she goes everywhere with her, but does Tracy have an ulterior motive for doing this?
Baumbach and Gerwig’s previous co-writing venture was Frances Ha, which I found messy and distancing. Mistress America is an improvement, still messy but less embarrassed by sentiment. The previous film used a song like David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ but did nothing with it, whereas this film uses OMD’s ‘Souvenir’ to good, even emotional effect. Mistress America remains judgemental and one-note in much of its characterisation, but it is a little more open to emotion and unexpectedness. In a word, decent.
Towards the end of the film, there is a long set piece in which Tracy and Brooke travel to the house of a rich ex-boyfriend in order to try to get funding for a restaurant. This is where all those claims of ‘screwball’ come from. The film throws a series of unconnected, completely different characters into a house and watch them react off each other over an extended period of time. It is a device familiar from The Philadelphia Story or Holiday or Bringing Up Baby to name three screwball comedies at random (the fact that all three are Grant-Hepburn films is coincidental), and it really works here. It is a likable, funny, fast-paced, even exciting sequence, which elevates the rest of the film.
Mistress America does not have a particularly interesting story, the performances suffer somewhat from the under-developed characters and the film itself feels slight. But it remains a funny and a likable novella of a film. This may seem like faint praise, but Mistress America lifts elements of classical Hollywood and does something fresh and modern with them rather than simply offering a dull homage. As such, it is a likable throwback and one that would be worth repeating. So, apologises, but it is a good screwball comedy.