FILM REVIEW of Mistress America by Don Perlgut — When the history of early 21st century American film is written, it will become clear that the true inheritor to the Jewish film-making legacy of Woody Allen is Brooklyn-raised writer-director Noah Baumbach, who is 34 years Allen’s junior.
Baumbach has paid homage to Allen throughout his career, ranging from his black-and-white film-making in Frances Ha (compared to Allen’s Manhattan), to his self-conscious vistas of New York and his close attention to modern American relationships.
In Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, he collaborates with Greta Gerwig for the second time – she starred in and co-wrote Frances Ha – and extends his development of complex, conflicted and comically struggling female characters.
Set in New York City, the action revolves around college freshman Tracy Fishko, who is played by Jewish actress Lola Kirke (sister of Girls star Jemima Kirke).
The Girls connection is relevant, for Mistress America feels like a first cousin to Lena Dunham’s TV series, with comically confused characters seeking fulfilment and life’s meaning on the streets of the Big Apple.
Tracy has come to Columbia University to study literature, but is not enjoying life, making few friends and spending many lonely hours.
Fortunately, her mother (played by the delightful Kathryn Erbe) is about to marry again, and puts Tracy in touch with her new step-sister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig), a thirtysomething charismatic, energetic and entrepreneurial whirlwind filled with ideas and surprises.
Brooke becomes Tracy’s mentor, carting her around the city and allowing Tracy to feel as if she is living the romantic life she so craves.
There’s some clever commentary about living life in the hyper-connected digital age: some of the details are totally delicious, down to the severely cracked screen of Tracy’s iPhone.
The highlight of Mistress America – the name comes from Tracy’s short story about Brooke – is an elaborate comedy of errors set piece, which takes place in a cold suburban Connecticut house with a fabulous river view.
In a Marx Brothers-style scene, characters pop in and out of rooms, learning new things about each other as relationships unravel and new understandings develop. The scene lasts about 15 minutes, and reminds us of the best of Wes Anderson.
Mistress America is a comedy of manners, much more subtle and low key than Baumbach’s recent work.
However, not a great deal actually happens in the film, with a looser structure than Frances Ha, which may frustrate some viewers who prefer a strong storyline, and some of the relationships never quite get off the ground.