Mistress America – Greta Gerwig shining layer upon layer. (Film Review)
The plotted subtext of Mistress America – that everyone is copying/stealing from everyone else all the time – is a very now response to the overbearing litigious implications of making art that include spilling into the reality of making anything in contemporary society. Greta Gerwig plays Brooke, the quintessential It Girl (played by the quintessential It Girl) in the very now transitional world from hip teen to cool young adult in the freshly demystified youthful space where white educated privilege awkwardly finds its footing in a self-conscious acceptance. This layering extends to the Woody Allen comparisons. For me, and for many film buffs I suspect, Wood Allen is the guy who stole nearly everything but lived in a time when you got away with it. His transitional characters, moving from lost youth to sophisticated socialite, having witty conversations as they strolled the streets of Manhattan, or languished in their rent controlled book lined apartments, lacked the mystique of the early 1960’s, where Andy Warhol only needed to turn up with Edie Sedgewick and pronounce her his “muse” for them and their entourage to become the central pivot upon which the mystique of the intellectual white happening young NY sophisticate, to hang their hat. None of this exists for Baumbach and Gerwig who have to find their footing in an un-cool-and-therefore-hip dynamic that quivers under the constantly watchful eye of social media – another point brought to the fore in one of the films many clever social quips. As an ex fan of the fallen Woody Allen, I find the Gerwig/Baumbach combo more than a suitable replacement, particularly in the multilayered acknowledging, that comes and goes within in the frames of the film.
Brooke (Gerwig) lives in Times Square New York, the most “now”, and “post-now” place you can live in the world. As an It Girl, she is everyone’s muse, sprouting flawlessly timed one liners as she purposefully drives from pointless appointment to pointless appointment in a relentless pursuit of the moment. She sings with the band, freelancers as an interior decorator, kisses around but remains intercourse faithful to a Greek financier boyfriend who she “…would hate, only I’m in love with him” and spends most of her time coming up with brilliant ideas for books, stage plays, cabarets, photo shoots, restaurants and t-shirt graphics. She is The Muse. Only the world has no time for The Muse anymore, so Brooke, now thirty, has to come up with something more substantial upon which to hang her personality which is her best asset. Her idea is a new restaurant calls “Mom’s” that is properly located and suitably now but she is dealing with the usual problems of funding and responding to the emotional needs of those around her. Throughout the complications of all this, we discover slowly that everyone has been using Brooke. One of the great titles she comes up with for a TV show is Mistress America, a place about the essence of America, where the world comes to glean and take its ideas. It doesn’t take us long to work out, that Brooke is Mistress America and that everyone around her is creatively bleeding her dry.
Despite the glowing enormity of Brooke, the films actual protagonist is Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) a wannabe eighteen year old writer in her first year of college, struggling with fitting in and working it all out in the big pond. She’s attempting to find her voice as a writer, her strength as a woman and her place in the world, until she meets Brooke, and is able to glean top experience and inspiration from the Times Square muse. One of the first things she learns about Brooke is that she wants to control one of her own projects rather than inspire everyone else (who she accuses of stealing her ideas) but the challenge for Tracy is that Brooke inspires her to find her voice and herself as well, and thus we have the groundwork for the films surface level conflict – an unresolvable conflict as each side of this impossible to resolve battle has a point. Does that which inspires us belong to us or to the source? Does the written work belong to us or our readers? When everything is being documented all of the time, what constitutes ownership? When Brooke’s nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) takes Brooke’s idea and makes it a reality, does the inspiration and the idea deserve the same financial recognition as taking the idea and making it real? The is the problem of The Muse, or the It Girl, and it is an exclusively female one. However developed through to its broader context, Gerwig and Baumbach reveal it’s a generational one (“Your generation … is pastiche”) and then an American one in that the US is both the stealer of others ideas and the generator of new ones.
This comes out in the layers of the film , the most obvious being the Woody Allen connection, but there are fun additions like a pregnant women’s reading group where they dissect Faulkner’s The Hamlet before they move on to Derrida and plunge the male first year lit college student into terror, and the art-made-me-rich best friend musing about his days in The Village when he was “the sort of person they made TV shows about.” This constant referencing tumbles out of everyone’s mouth, but it is strongest pouring from Gerwig, who flawlessly embodies this role, getting better and better in everything she does. Many of the films themes were addressed with more stodgy clarity in Baumbach’s earlier effort this year While We’re Young, but Gerwig supplies the missing charisma he lacks when they work together. Mistress America is, rather, the natural addition to 2014’s Frances Ha, one of my favourite films of that year, which embodies the existential angst signifying the end of the enlightenment but wraps it in the peculiar optimism embraced by contemporary youth culture. Mistress America is Frances Ha’s sophisticated cousin, and shows a pairing growing in the right direction for Gerwig and Baumbach where each is bringing out the best in the other. If you can take the precociousness and are intrigued rather than bored by the self-referential, the wit and cleverness of Mistress America will more than satisfy.