Greta Gerwig in Mistress America

Five years into Noah Baumbach’s film career, he had worked with four actors three times each. His go-to performers Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, John Lehr, and Eric Stoltz formed perhaps the least-heralded indie-movie rep company of the ’90s, nailing the conversational quipping of Baumbach’s dialogue in movies like Kicking And Screaming and Mr. Jealousy. Their third film together, though, was Highball, an obscurity even by these standards, for which Baumbach assumed aliases in lieu of writing or directing credits. Highball, shot with time and money left over from Mr. Jealousy, is absolutely hilarious; it’s also lo-fi, strange, and, according to Baumbach, essentially an unfinished experiment. So it’s disappointing but not surprising that it led to a hard reset of Baumbach’s career. When he returned eight years later with The Squid And The Whale, no one from the old gang accompanied him.

Squid is sort of a comedy, too, as is the even more caustic Margot At The Wedding, and Baumbach’s signature wit remains. But these are raw, wounding comedies of dysfunctional families and personalities, shot with handheld intimacy—not his charming early comedies. No one familiar with Baumbach 2.0 would be surprised by the bleak discomfort of Greenberg, in which Ben Stiller plays the titular character, an unemployed, possibly unemployable neurotic with a short fuse, prone to revise phrases like “youth is wasted on the young” to “life is wasted on people.” The character is a great match for Stiller, who often plays short-fused neurotics but rarely as well-drawn (or averse to corralling magical museum exhibits) as Roger Greenberg.

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Stiller would make a natural De Niro to Baumbach’s nonviolent Scorsese, and that partnership has indeed continued with While We’re Young and Baumbach’s forthcoming next project. But a small streak of sunshine broke through the overcast Greenberg in the form of Greta Gerwig. “Small” should not indicate that Gerwig is less than prominent or less than terrific in the role of Florence, an assistant for Greenberg’s brother who takes a semi-inexplicable shine to the malcontent attempting to build a doghouse and/or “do nothing” while his brother and family are out of town. It’s just that she can only bring so much brightness into Greenberg’s worldview—and, for that matter, her own, which seems colored by her doormat tendencies.

At the time of Greenberg’s 2010 release, Gerwig had appeared almost exclusively in microbudget features about twentysomethings stumbling and mumbling their way through postgraduate malaise. This group of movies by filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, dubbed “mumblecore” somewhat against their will, arguably functions as a well-stocked if-you-liked-that-try-this shelf for Kicking And Screaming fans. In these films, Gerwig often looks and sounds wobbly, reticent—she’s a gawky charmer, and so are many of the movies. Greenberg’s Florence lives in somewhat less of a bubble than a lot of mumblecore characters in that she is more or less gainfully employed and interacts with people older than herself.

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Baumbach, working with the late cinematographer Harris Savides, shoots Gerwig with a kind of watchful affection, getting in close as she drives around doing work errands, a hazy Los Angeles sun hitting the windows and Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” playing. “Are you going to let me in?” she asks another driver in talking-to-herself tones. This is one of the first shots of the movie, which follows Florence for a full eight minutes before introducing Stiller’s title character. In retrospect, it seems like Baumbach is tipping his hand about his interest in Gerwig. His instincts are dead-on; putting Gerwig at the front of the movie allows a hesitant character to make a vivid impression before smashing her into Stiller’s prickly garden of hang-ups and neuroses. Their romantic scrabbling, including a profoundly unsexy sort of sex scene, maintains the uncertainty of mumblecore but with a more articulate form of mumbling.

Frances Ha feels even more inspired by mumblecore, at least superficially; it has just as much in common with French New Wave and Baumbach’s own Kicking And Screaming. But it isolates another aspect of the Gerwig mumblecore persona: the postcollege struggle to find both an outlet for creativity and a workable livelihood. In doing so, it strips away the mumblecore go-to of romantic complications, or at least traditional ones. Frances Ha does have romance—between Frances and her supposed best friend (Mickey Sumner), between Frances and New York City, between Frances and any number of new friends she deems “magic”—but it lacks sex or even kissing, at least on screen, between Frances and anyone else. As her address changes over the course of a year or so, Frances struggles to take root, and her fuckups never feel like an affectation. It’s a star turn from Gerwig that feels deeply personal, in part because she co-wrote the movie with Baumbach after Greenberg (and somewhere around then became his romantic partner in real life).

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Gerwig is clearly attracted to a certain type of material. Her earlier movies—from her mumblecore days to her indie sort-of-rom-com Lola Versus to her love-interest gig as a whimsical New Yorker in the Arthur remake—all dance around what she finally nails perfectly as Frances, maybe because of her increased role behind the scenes. Her screenplay with Baumbach revisits the naturalistic quips of Kicking And Screaming and caffeinates them. Baumbach has always had a penchant for half-heard conversations (Kicking opens with a series of fragments at a graduation party; Highball is practically that scene at feature length), and in Frances, he accelerates his editing, with cuts serving as punchlines. Gerwig has screwball energy, but she’s distinctly contemporary, without imitation-Katharine-Hepburn rat-a-tat rhythms. Baumbach’s editing becomes her unseen screen partner, speeding up her lines by cutting some of them off. (Greenberg has some similar cutting but more often to jump past unnecessary exposition, as when he interrupts a phone call about a sick dog to get to the vet’s office.)

Gerwig’s performance doesn’t only come through in well-cut dialogue scenes. A lot of it qualifies as soloing, both spoken and not. In perhaps the most famous image from Frances, she dance-runs through the streets of Manhattan with David Bowie’s “Modern Love” playing on the soundtrack. Both the action and the song play as homage to a Leos Carax film, but it’s worth noting what comes before and after this sequence. The beat of the Bowie song starts in the previous scene, where Frances is about to make the decision to move in with a couple of friendly hipsters she’s just met, punctuating a little dance she does to say goodbye to them at the end of the night. The song is then abruptly cut off with a shot of her entering the Chinatown apartment and smiling to herself. It’s essentially the entire story of Frances’ move, temporary exhilaration and contentment told through Gerwig’s physical performance and Baumbach’s filmmaking.

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In a less ebullient scene, Frances, drunk at a dinner party full of certified adults, describes the kind of feeling she’s looking for in a relationship. Baumbach mostly keeps the camera on her but cuts to a few reaction shots as a reminder that her monologue isn’t happening in a vacuum. But it doesn’t matter: Gerwig perfectly balances the romanticism and slight embarrassment of her sentiments, which are being shared with people she barely knows.

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In Mistress America, the second film Gerwig wrote with Baumbach, Gerwig’s character is often surrounded by people she knows loosely or socially. She’s more confident and competent than Frances, but not necessarily more successful. The film was received as a sort of wacky little sibling to Frances Ha, but its vantage point is actually both older and younger. Its protagonist, Tracy (Lola Kirke), is just a college freshman, at least half a decade away from the twentysomething scrappiness of Frances, while Tracy’s potential new stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), is on the other side of the quarter-life crisis, riding into her 30s with plenty of hustle but not a lot to show for it. The movie works as a companion piece to Frances because of the characters’ ages (taken together, Baumbach’s filmography offers a fairly comprehensive view of his feelings about most ages from about 16 until the mid-to-late 40s), though it also stands alone as its own terrific movie.

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If Frances skips and stumbles through a screwball comedy where the other characters are drifting away from her, Mistress America sends Gerwig running into a full-on farce. She speaks and moves more quickly throughout the film, laps ahead of the apologetic tone that Florence takes in so many of her interactions or even the sheepishness that Frances signals with her accidental catchphrase, “I feel bad.” If Brooke feels bad, she doesn’t show it. In a scene where she’s confronted by an old classmate over some high school teasing, she’s friendly until it becomes clear that the woman expects an apology, at which point she digs in and refuses to grant her any real catharsis or closure.

In contrast to Greenberg, where Gerwig establishes a beachhead before Stiller enters the movie, this time it’s Gerwig who gets the delayed entrance. The first 10 minutes of Mistress America follow Tracy through her loneliness at Columbia University, and much of the movie sticks with her point of view (one notable exception: a phone call between Brooke and her dad). But as good as Kirke is, Gerwig dominates the movie, even when she’s sharing the screen with half a dozen other characters. That’s the case in the back half of the movie, in which Baumbach uses a markedly different comic technique than in Frances Ha.

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The editing of Mistress America still snaps, but it only occasionally creates jokes out of midconversation step-ins. During the movie’s wilder second half, set at the Connecticut home of Brooke’s former friend and currently declared nemesis, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), Baumbach lets jokes fire without cutting away. Sometimes he does this with static shots that fit a lot of characters into the frame, with Gerwig usually at the center of the action; sometimes the camera travels along with the characters as they bustle through the rooms of Mamie-Claire’s well-appointed home, also usually driven by Gerwig. The characters also split off into smaller groups, and Baumbach’s longest extended takes are not epic in length. But the master shots identify just how many moving parts and shifting relationships are involved in this long, frequently hilarious sequence.

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A sense of clamor also informs a lot of the dialogue between Brooke and Tracy, who both sometimes appear to be firing off one-liners and observations without acknowledging the other’s—Brooke more so than Tracy, though late in the movie she surprises her with a reference to a request of Tracy’s that seemed, at the time, to go unheard (“I hear everything,” she says). Gerwig’s progression across these three Baumbach movies is so deft that Brooke feels like a culmination of her entire career so far despite not much resembling anyone she’s ever played before. It’s a star turn blossoming from her indie roots while also staying true to them.

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That’s not to imply that she’s dependent on Baumbach to best use her talent. She’s been excellent in other films, including Whit Stillman’s daft, hilarious Damsels In Distress and the upcoming Wiener-Dog. Moreover, she co-wrote the scripts to two of Baumbach’s best movies. Gerwig’s input seems to have reoriented some of his work toward a female point of view he never fully embraced before. His first group of actors is largely a boys’ club, and while there are well-written female characters in Kicking And Screaming and Highball, they tend not to interact much with other women. Margot At The Wedding deals with two sisters within a family, but, like Squid, the action is seen largely through the eyes of a character’s young son. Frances Ha and especially Mistress America don’t much bother with a male point of view; arguably the three most important characters in the latter are female, which shouldn’t be a rarity but is. (Even Gerwig’s mumblecore pictures tend to stick her with a bunch of dudes.)

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Given the strong female relationships in both movies, it’s all the more remarkable that Gerwig’s characters in Frances and Mistress also feel like they exist in their own worlds, both independent and, sometimes, lonely. Both films, as well as Greenberg, give her major scenes talking or listening on a telephone (and never while worrying about a spouse stuck in a dangerous, more cinematic situation). In Greenberg—the movie that opens with her almost as misdirection—that’s exactly how she delivers the movie’s delicate, perfect ending, which turns largely on her execution of a simple line. It takes real trust to give as much attention to an independent-minded performer as to a long-developing ensemble like Baumbach’s ’90s crew or a major movie star like Ben Stiller. Gerwig began her career seeming too naturalistic, too raw, to be any kind of traditional movie star. In her movies with Baumbach, she’s still not traditional, but she sure feels like a star.

Next time: Another chronicler of urban neuroses; another young movie star rerouting her career.