The American Dream, that anciently glorious idiom, presumes that any one person in this vast nation is entitled to transforming into whoever they want to be and striking it big. The individualism inherent in this notion is what makes it entirely apropos that the American Dream in director Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece “Mistress America” takes root in Brooke Cardenas (Greta Gerwig), a narcissist stricken by the willful delusion that because you say something that automatically means it is. (“That’s why I’m not in therapy. I know everything about myself.”)
Baumbach has always leaned on dyspeptic egotists, from Ben Stiller’s Greenberg to Nicole Kidman’s Margot, but Brooke is in a league all her own. There is an early scene where a former high school classmate confronts Brooke over her cold, cold heart. It’s familiar, the moment when we are made to understand Brooke has always been like this. But rather than simply letting this revelation lie there, Baumbach and Gerwig (who wrote the screenplay together), turn it around, forcing Brooke to forgo self-actualization and act as if she’s the victim. It’s like putting the character’s last shred of potential empathy on the pyre. It’s like she’s “All About Eve’s” Marilyn Monroe crossed with Bette Davis; miraculously innocent in her cruelty.
As the film opens, Tracy (Lola Kirke) has just gone away to Barnard College. A la “Frances Ha”, Baumbach constructs these scenes as a fast-moving series of vignettes, effectively demonstrating the alacrity with which a freshman can be overwhelmed when her utopian ideals of the collegiate experience crumble in the face of the real thing. Adrift and friendless for what in teenage years feels like months, her mother Stevie (Kathryn Erbe) suggests she contact Brooke, the thirtysomething daughter of Stevie’s fiancé.
Though Brooke is intentionally unlikable, Gerwig’s genuine marvel of a performance is not, often playing like she’s only in the room with herself, listening only in so much as she’s thinking of what she can say next, yet still tuning into her semi-protégé’s frequency just not enough to acutely convey that she understands Tracy just as far as Tracy wants to be understood. You may see right through Brooke’s obvious veneer, but you also see how initially Tracy does not, swept away in Brooke’s almost bullish charisma that Gerwig so ably captures, amplified by the quick-cut whoosh of filmmaking, as if it’s all happening so fast Tracy never has time to stop and consider her mentor’s cosmopolitan aura is just a put-on.
Brooke relentlessly concocts plans and schemes, none of which amount anything tangible, emblemized by her Greek boyfriend we never see. He’s funding her latest harebrained capitalist reverie, a restaurant called Mom’s, not as much an eatery as a community center with food, a cultural Shangri-La. She talks it up likes it’s the best place in the world, less concerned with brass tacks than the ivory tower at the end of the rainbow; that’s why she lives in Times Square, right off Broadway, consumed by a land of make believe.
Eventually Tracy seizes on Brooke as a creative invention in a story that could gain her entrance to the snobbish literary society in which she wants so desperately. And if art is a working through then Tracy uses this short story to work through Brooke, to see both sides of her potential stepsister, allowing the film to strike an incredible juxtaposition, seeing something extremely earnest in the ersatz, a complexly poignant admiration for the way this faux-socialite leverages everything on her dreams.
Those dreams are brought to the edge in the film’s lengthiest and most virtuoso sequence, one in which Baumbach acutely maintains a firm and humorous visual handle on a multitude of mobile characters, triggered when the necessary funding for Mom’s goes belly up which transforms “Mistress America” into a drawing room farce as Brooke and Tracy and journey north to the wealthy hamlet of Greenwich, Connecticut to visit Brooke’s old flame, Dylan (Michael Chernus) now married to an ice princess, Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), guilty of stealing Brooke’s long-ago brilliant t-shirt idea, and convince them to invest in Mom’s.
To make her pitch, Dylan forces Brooke to ascend his “media stage”, like it’s a makeshift infomercial, a laugh-out-loud reminder that the American Dream has been transformed from a goal you pursue to a brand you pitch while hoping that the precious few with money to burn will actually back it. And even as Brooke rises to the occasion, her desperation comes through loud and clear, and her moment of triumph doubles as the moment she realizes all her grand planning is just playing pretend.
“Mistress America” is built off screwball comedies of the past, loaded with brisk action and manically witty repartee and infused with insightful, hilarious and caustic social commentary relevant to the present. Yet just as much it comes to resemble a zanier update of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork, “The Great Gatsby”, imagining Tracy and Brooke as a modernistic feminine spin on Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby. What is Brooke, after all, if not a self-made star-gazer, a larger-than-life fabrication, one as easy to dismiss as to admire. Her incessant vaingloriousness is all in the name of chowing down on that pie in American airspace, a ridiculous belief in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes her throughout “Mistress America”, sure, but that’s no matter—tomorrow she will run faster, stretch out her arms farther.
The American Dream probably was never much more than a huckster’s slogan to begin with considering that F. Scott was taking it apart way back in 1925. Yet its myth survives because for so much cynicism inundating culture we nonetheless remain inherently romantic, the dueling notions at play in Brooke. She is introduced descending the staircase at the TKTS stand in Times Square, arms spread wide to greet Tracy, exclaiming in the manner of a New World tour guide “Welcome to the great white way!” Alas, she’s misjudged the number of stairs and with several still to go is forced to wobbly maintain her starlet facade. And she does. She never relents; she never gives up on the persona; she will grin and bear it in the face of all obstacles. And in that moment, in Gerwig’s immaculate visage, we see The American Dream itself laid bare. She’s wholly sincere; she’s also full of shit.