Review: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig bring comedic fireworks to ‘Mistress America’

PARK CITY – No one needs to worry about Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig experiencing a sophomore slump. After collaborating behind the camera for 2012's “Frances Ha,” the duo have reunited for “Mistress America,” a hilarious new comedy that premiered Saturday evening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. And yes, for those who care, this one is in color.

While Gerwig also plays a main character on screen, the movie is actually told from the point of view of Tracy (Lola Kirke from “Gone Girl” and “Mozart in the Jungle”), a freshman writing major at Bard College who is having those familiar first semester problems of fitting in and making friends. She does find one ally in Tony (Matthew Shear) after they both fail to make it into the prestigious Mobius Literary Society. That joy is short-lived once Tony surprises her by finding a jealous girlfriend in the form of Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones). Seemingly alone once again in the big city, Tracy finally breaks down and takes her mom's advice to call her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Their parents are getting married to each other that Thanksgiving and Brooke might be able to help by showing her a less collegial side of living in the Big Apple.

Instantly, the 30-year-old Brooke is a whirlwind of energy and ideas that blows Tracy away. Brooke has a slew of jobs including SoulCycle class instructor and student tutor, but she's there and everywhere else all at once. Her dream is to open a restaurant space she plans on calling “Moms” (intentionally without the possessive, mind you). Of course, a majority of the financing for it is from her mysterious boyfriend Stavros, who is currently living in Greece (but more on that later). Brooke seems to suffer from creative ADD, jumping from one subject matter to another, and is full of opinions and unsolicited advice Tracy can barely process at first. After a few magical days and nights of new adventures, Tracy is inspired to write a new submission to Mobius entitled “Mistress America” and you can easily figure out who inspired it.

While Tracy's road is finally getting brighter, disaster strikes for Brooke, who suddenly doesn't seem as “with it” as first impressions indicated. It all starts to go wrong when Stavros drops out as her primary investor, leaving her with just the weekend to come up with a $45,000 payment to save her new business. Things get worse when she returns home, with Tracy embarrassingly in tow, to find that the landlord has changed the locks on her apartment (it isn't explicitly stated she didn't make the rent, but that appears to be the case). Desperate, Tracy helps convince Brooke to go visit her former best friend (Heather Lind) and one-time boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) in Greenwich, Connecticut to replace Stavros' share. Why would they do this? Well, according to Brooke, her best friend stole her idea for a T-shirt that she sold to J. Crew for a boatload of cash and then proceeded to steal Dylan away from her as well. Basically, they owe her something, right?

Before anyone can really think that out to a logical conclusion, Tracy has convinced Tony to drive a car-less Brooke out of town for this last-ditch effort and they're quickly on the road (with a sneering Nicolette tagging along, too). When they reach Dylan's mansion, a comic set piece of almost non-stop zingers and comedic banter ensues that's hard to describe without spoiling a lot of the fun. Secrets are revealed, characters make major life choices and the plot goes in a somewhat unexpected direction.

Baumbach has cast a wonderfully talented group of up-and-coming actors around Gerwig and Kirke, but it's the screenplay and the leads' incredible chemistry that makes it all so entertaining. There are so many one-liners that you miss because the previous line of dialogue is just as smart and laugh-inducing. In particular, the major Greenwich set piece feels like it's plucked out of a Whit Stillman movie (Gerwig starred in Stillman's 2011 comeback “Damsels in Distress”), and yet, somehow the movie also has an energy that feels as though it's completely missing from independent comedy these days. 

Baumbach has already earned some critical accolades for “While We're Young,” which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September, but it's nowhere near as fresh as what he's created in “Mistress America” with Gerwig. Then again, two Baumbach movies in one year? We should simply count our blessings and pray for more.

“Mistress America” was picked up by Fox Searchlight before its Sundance premiere but there is currently no release date for it at this time.  It is, however, expected to hit theaters sometime this calendar year.

Other Sundance reviews:
“Summer of Sangaile”
“The Bronze”
“The End of the Tour”
“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”
“The D Train”
“Z for Zachariah”
“True Story”
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”