When Noah Baumbach makes movies about miserable people, they tend to be miserable experiences. Ben Stiller was a depressed, egocentric bundle of nerves in Greenberg. In Margot at the Wedding, Nicole Kidman was a near hysteric mother, so casually cruel to her teen son it set your teeth on edge. And Jeff Daniels’ insecure, superior father in The Squid and the Whale was a textbook narcissist and a gasbag academic to boot. While talent is evident in these films, they are neither enjoyable or incisive. Rather, they are merely intricate portraits of unpleasant people doing awful things to themselves and those around them.
But Baumbach has a breezier side, one that was shown in his writing of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and of late, his films seem less like autopsies and more like entertainment. In Frances Ha and While We’re Young, Baumbach could not quite leave the realm of the neurotic, but at least we had characters to semi-root for. In Mistress America, we have an unqualified heroine, Greta Gerwig (who dates Baumbach and co-wrote the script), a whirling dervish of a climber, all idea and no follow-through, who latches on to a lonely college freshman (Lola Kirke), lifts her spirits and serves as her muse. What follows is a hilarious social and then drawing room comedy, which has a bit of a Whit Stillman nostalgia, but is decidedly more modern in its literate and canny observation of academia, money, status and success. Gerwig is truly a force of nature, and Kirke is genuinely touching as a child adrift in the cold realm of college and New York City. I laughed out loud throughout, one of the best films of the year.