Noah Baumbach is extremely adept at making me feel like shit. While from the outside his signature films The Squid & The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, etc. may look like the kind of cutesy indie dramas that often earn the quaint moniker “Sundance darlings”, they actually pack much more of a devastating emotional punch than you’d first expect. Baumbach’s parade of broken, often vile characters truly get under my skin, mostly because they’re so real & so relatable. What’s even worse is they have the nerve to make me laugh at the same time, despite myself. Even if I don’t personally identify with the moral reprobates Baumbach brings to the big screen, I can at least recognize their traits in real life people that stalk this cursed Earth, often people I love or at least find amusing. For instance, the deeply unpleasant film Greenberg hosts a lead performance from Ben Stiller so heartlessly misanthropic & cruelly self-centered that I left the film shaking so thoroughly with anger that I couldn’t help feeling as if part of my discomfort was that I recognized aspects of his destructive behavior in people I know intimately or, shudder to think, myself at my worst. It was so tempting to reduce my reaction to Greenberg to “Fuck that movie!” but at the same time it was near impossible to ignore that it had struck a chord, unpleasant or not. In a lot of ways, Baumbach’s latest film Mistress America is the spiritual opposite of Greenberg, yet both films somehow strike that dark, too-close-to-home chord of discomfort.
Mistress America, which Baumbach co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig (who portrays the titular human anomaly Brooke), strikes a funny, but acidly damning portrait of Millennial pretentiousness. Brooke is anything & nothing simultaneously. She’s a creative spirit with no follow-through to finish any of the many projects she conceives. She drifts in & out of people’s lives without ever emotionally engaging with them in any specific way, leaving behind a trail of destruction that she is far too self-absorbed to even notice. She constantly rags on “rich people”, but obviously coasts on a certain level of privilege she won’t acknowledge. Brooke tries to be everything to everyone, even going as far as adopting different costumes (sometimes on an hourly schedule) depending on the task at hand: pencil skirts for business meetings, workout gear for the health nut part of her day, non-prescription glasses & sweaters for tutoring sessions, etc. While tutoring a math student she’s shown describing the nature of “x” as a variable that “can’t be nailed down”, which is very much on the nose. However, when she later describes herself as “kind & fearless”, she’s completely off the mark. Brooke may think she knows every last thing about how the world works, but the truth is she doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.
At the same time, though, her boundless energy & roaring self-confidence can be intoxicating, especially to a young admirer. Brooke’s soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is mildly critical of, but completely starstruck by Brooke, who is, by all means, an impossible person (the kind that lives in Times Square & spontaneously gets invited onstage at concerts). Alone on a college campus in New York City, Tracy is an emotionally vulnerable freshmen who is looking for a sense of self-purpose & personal identity. Tracy yearns to be a pretentious literary type, but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In Brooke she sees the unbridled moxie she wishes she possessed herself. As she fawns over & begins to imitate Brooke, the film gets similarly excited, picking up speed in a delirious manner & getting drunk on self-awarded power. However, Brooke’s modern day Holly Golightly lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem on the surface & Tracy quickly discovers that her hero is a broken, selfish narcissist not so gracefully transitioning from the twilight of her frivolous 20s into a much less flattering frivolous adulthood.
In a lot of ways Brooke is more of a collection of empty platitudes & thinly veiled attempts to be quotable than a real person. While casually posing for a friend’s Instagram photo she asks, “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?!” When Tracy explains she wants to be a stort story writer, Brooke responds “I read that TV shows are the new novel.” Other self-generated clichés include “You can’t really know what it is to want until you are at least 30,” & “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” She’s also prone to introducing herself to new friends with the account that “I watched my mother die […] Everyone I love dies,” a personal catchphrase that feels all the more disquieting because she sounds like she doesn’t mean one word of it. It’s no wonder that Brooke is so proficient at Twitter fame, schmoozing businessmen, and coaching a spin class. Her vapid phrasings can be downright inspirational at times . . . as long as you don’t pay attention to what she’s actually saying.
It’s possible that not everyone will engage with Brooke in the same adversary way that I did. Like Tracy (who Brooke deems “Baby Tracy”) it’s feasible that some audiences could fall for her surface charms. It seems like no mistake to me, though, that the more Tracy imitates Brooke, the less unique & likable she becomes as a protagonist. In a lot of ways her newfound confidence turns her into an insufferable jerk & a bully. Also amplifying this feeling is the vibrant 80s synth soundtrack, which always feels like it’s building to a significant breakthrough moment that it never actually reaches. In so many ways, this echoes Brooke’s entire, vapid existence. She thinks that she’s the star of the show (and life is certainly nothing if not a staged production in her case), but she’s actually the butt of its cruel joke.
Mistress America pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing that fragile emptiness behind Brooke’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I façade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like Tracy, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad. Brooke is the kind of person you’d love to talk to at a party & someone you could have a general sense of concern about, but not a presence you’d want to connect with on any intimate level. She’s far too fleeting & brutally egotistical for that & Mistress America has an emotional bodycount to prove it. Like with a lot of Baumbach’s work, it’s the kind of film that makes you feel truly awful for laughing, a conflicting sensation I personally enjoy very much.