‘Mistress America’
Director: Noah Baumbach
Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Everyone I love dies,” Greta Gerwig’s Brooke slips in between two lighthearted one-liners. It comes so fast and out of nowhere that an inattentive viewer could miss it entirely — just one of many splutterings that spurt forth in a never-ceasing geyser of quotables. Brooke has a chaotic New York life, a patchwork of odd jobs and questionable living spaces; when we meet her she’s holed up in a Times Square loft she sometimes has to access by the fire escape. The film — Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s second screenwriting team-up, after “Frances Ha” — is also chaotic, though in a more controlled way. It’s a study of female friendship that eventually turns into a screwball comedy that soon becomes about unwitting betrayal, all of it held together through pluck and hustle and bubble gum — the same method with which Brooke ekes out her existence.

Brooke is merely the unknowable co-lead. The real hero is Lola Kirke’s Tracy, an impressionable freshman new to the big city. Lonely and heartbroken, she learns she and Brooke may soon be related by marriage. One phonecall later and she’s sucked into her rampaging orbit. They carouse about town, their misadventures cut short around the mid-point by a road trip to a ridiculous white-walled New England manse dotted with the occasional Brian De Palma poster. At this point what had been a two-hander, grooving on Kirke as the straight man to Gerwig’s gabby grotesque, swells into an ensemble, each of them stepping on each other’s lines and running about in darting long takes right out of “My Man Godfrey.” 

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The screwball is expertly done, all the more impressive because it’s reviving a long-dead form of acting that’s a pickle to imitate. But “Mistress America” has a bigger surprise up its sleeve. The year’s other Baumbach, “While We’re Young,” suddenly, in its third act, became a study of the ethics of documentary filmmaking. This becomes a study of the ethics of fiction writing. Enamored/amused by her new friend, Tracy has written a short story inspired by her, though it’s a not entirely flattering portrait — or at least not the one the oblivious, personality-curating Tracy would have created. The gear-shift is smoother than in “While We’re Young,” whose transition was akin to being hit by a speeding bus. And it gets at something genuinely novel: that even creating fictional versions of the real can lead to real hurt, even if that’s not intended.

Even if it didn’t stick the landing — or even if the lengthy screwball section didn’t go as swimmingly as it does — “Mistress America” would still be charmer, not unlike the way Brooke is able to charm her young charge. Baumbach and Gerwig are whizzes at lines worth scribbling down, illegibly, in your notebook, and Brooke is a beyond vivid character, rattling off exaggerated threats and perceived enemies, weaving a dense mythology around herself that may not even be true. The rough-and-tumble first half, crafted in quickie scenes in real, sometimes ratty locations, gives way to the noisy elegance of the second, where the sweeping camera has fun struggling to contain not only bodies always in motion but egos bigger than any moneyed home. (Michael Chernus, as the pretentious chief breadwinner, is quickly becoming a great reliable.) One goes along with it grasping the theater’s armchairs a la a rollercoaster car, emerging with the kind of whiplash that makes you get right back in line.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge