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Barely four months after Noah Baumbach’s last movie, While We’re Young, the new one, Mistress America, screeches into view. Is it time to warn him? That he drives too fast? That he races too often? That he could be a crash or burnout waiting to happen? Look what became of Woody Allen — Baumbach’s only peer in thinking person’s New York comedy, past or present — after his first decade of uncontrolled panache. He’s a filmmaker forever pitting his talent, these days, between variable laps.
Baumbach can keep going, for now, on his magic tyres. Mistress America is quite wonderful. It may be his best film to date. It lasts 84 minutes — the right kind of speed — and doesn’t waste one of them. It stars a Greta Gerwig more than ever resembling cinema’s earlier Greta G, her tomboy-Garbo features ideal for the title-nicknamed heroine. Gerwig’s Brooke is a high-striding boho 30-year-old, dizzy with self-assurance while ditzy with self-delusion. Her newest mission: to show off New York to her younger prospective stepsister (newcomer Lola Kirke), a student and wannabe writer whose mum is about to wed Brooke’s dad.
The older girl is a multi-tasking mentor convinced she’s also a multi-achiever. She conducts fitness classes; plans to buy and run a new restaurant; shells out ingenious or ingenuous one-liners — of her current boyfriend: “He’s the kind of person I hate, except I’m in love with him” — and is a sleepless social networker. When Tracy makes her first quip Brooke says: “I’m going to shorten that, punch it up and turn it into a tweet.”
Gerwig, as in their last teaming, Frances Ha, co-wrote the script with partner Baumbach. Midway the film shifts to a different setting but higher gear: neo-screwball in a Connecticut country mansion. During a house-party weekend, half a dozen Brooke-related characters, indentured to her worship, form tableau vivant tribunals to critique Tracy’s acidic, Brooke-based short story, titled Mistress America. Like While We’re Young, this is a film about love (carnal and comradely), art and betrayal. And about about the pitfalls of hero worship versus the wise counsels of judicious disenchantment. It’s funny, witty, joyous, mischievous and casually profound.