The actress Greta Gerwig has had the same liberating effect on Noah Baumbach as Diane Keaton had on Woody Allen: she has opened him up, lending his films a giddy sense of release. Like Allen, Bambauch’s tendencies are Eeyoreish: his characters, in films such as “Greenberg” and “Margot at the Wedding”, are hyper-articulate injustice collectors who play their nerves like violins. But “Frances Ha”, Baumbach’s first film with Gerwig in 2012, about a young woman trying to find her footing in Manhattan, inhaled deeply of the French nouvelle vague – black and white cinematography, Georges Delerue soundtrack – and outlined in sketch form a new type of screen heroine, a sort of Annie Hall for millennials: absent-minded, free-spirited and a little dizzy, half in love with her own failures, lolloping from one humiliation to the next as if they confirmed her refusal to join the adult world.
His new film, “Mistress America”, fills out the sketch, and adds a spirit of screwball farce – Howard Hawks for the sexting set. There’s still a hint of menace at the edges, but Gerwig’s loopy spirit has been allowed to fashion a whole world for her heroine, and the result is more of a piece. It hums and fizzes with the fitful energies of twentysomethings pushing excitedly forward into the world and holding back lest it take a bite out of them. Lola Kirke plays Tracy, an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia who, struggling to find a place among her contemporaries, is directed by her mother to look up her soon-to-be-stepsister: the 29-year-old Brooke (Gerwig, pictured centre). Gerwig gets a great entrance, sashaying down the red steps behind the discount TKTS booth on Times Square but misjudging the distance she must sashay, so that her expression of effervescent “let-me-show-you-New-York” welcome must be held a few beats too long, and thus can be seen beginning its long, slow slide from her face.
It's a marvellous performance from Gerwig, who gives us a ditz in the manner of Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday but viewed with a touch more sad-sack pitilessness. Dressed in clothes that resemble a child’s raid on her aunt's closet, Brooke seems permanently stuck at 21, too busy taking mental selfies of herself having eureka moments to follow through on any one of them. An interior designer who also dabbles in SoulCycle classes, she nurses plans for a Williamsburg restaurant called Moms, where she would also cut hair and teach cookery. Oh and it would also function as a community centre for like-minded lost souls. All this is delivered in a breathless tumble, with lots of waving as if she has forgotten she had hands, or where she last put them. "I'm gonna shorten that, punch it up, and turn it into a tweet," she says, crossing the street. But even a tweet sounds beyond her, requiring too much follow-through.
The growing pains of the immature is fast turning into prime Baumbach territory, after his film from earlier this year, “While We’re Young”, a cross-generational comedy starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a fortysomething couple who fall for a twentysomething couple as a way of clinging to their own youth. In many ways it is the theme of American comedy right now, but where Judd Apatow mines the immaturity of his teddy-bear men with boisterous glee, Baumbach seems most hypnotised by the lull at Brooke’s centre. This whirlwind is hollow. “I’m so impressed by you and so worried about you at the same time,” says Tracy, who with her drowsy, submerged-sarcastic manner and slightly washed-out good looks is the perfect foil for the windmilling Gerwig – Nick Carraway to her Gatsby, secretly mining her quirks for a short story (“people could feel her failure coming…”), which the rules of plotting dictate must come to light at some point.
The film shares Brooke’s lopsided energy, for the most part playing like an amiable hangout comedy before taking an abrupt leftward lunge into full-on farce. When funding for Brooke’s restaurant falls through, she embarks on a nutty trek to track down a rich ex-boyfriend whom she lost, along with two cats and an idea for T-shirts, to a vixen named Mimi Jo. She finds them, together with a group of pregnant women reading Faulkner. “Holy shit these pregnant women are really smart,” remarks Tracy’s college buddy Tony (Matthew Shear), who is also along for the ride with his possessive girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Carefully stage-managing their entrances and exits, Baumbach piles the scene with as many characters as he can – adding a cranky neighbour for good measure – but lets it play out too long: the whirrings of the clockwork drown out the delicate badminton pock! of one-liners.
Baumbach has yet to finish a film well – he may be too in love with dying falls to fashion a satisfying climax for his dramas. Listen out for the sotte voce “yaaay” that Gerwig attempts at one point, her enthusiasm drooping with each “a”. Such listless souls seem born to just fade from the screen, like a limp handshake; although he regains some of the film’s initial energy with a finale freshly smitten with Brooke’s mojo. But you don’t believe it for a second. Baumbach can’t unpeel his onion. He has yet to discover what else might lie at his characters’ empty centres besides old Eighties hits, irony and dust. For that we will have to wait.
Mistress America is out now in America and Britain