“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere,” croons David Bowie in Golden Years, the song that bookends Noah Baumbach’s last film While We’re Young. We could well take this as a maxim aimed at Baumbach’s characters – at least in his cautiously optimistic later films, which all follow millennial yuppies as they attempt to carve some meaning from their leisurely Brooklyn lives.
In Mistress America, the yuppie in question is Brooke, a flighty, narcissistic woman about town who’s going on 30. She parties, dreams up incoherent business ventures, freelances as an interior decorator; she’s the sort of girl who elaborates a moral code to justify her adultery, and doesn’t ask other people questions about themselves. When her stepsister-to-be Tracy moves to New York, Brooke jumps at the chance to impress the wide-eyed teenager with a tour of her social life. She wants to be the centre of Tracy’s world, as well as her own, but the relationship sours when Tracy starts to understand her a little too well.
There is a jaundiced irony here that Baumbach excels at. “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself,” Brooke breezily tells her ex. “That’s why I know therapy doesn’t work for me.” It’s a neat line, but the joke’s on her: she may be self-absorbed, but self-aware she ain’t, and therein lies her aimlessness. Whether you can sympathise with such cosseted dilettantes depends on where you stand on the film’s mannered, Sundance-ready style. Baumbach has been compared to Woody Allen, but he lacks Allen’s knack for making his characters sound real – they talk in repartee, not dialogue.
His muse and partner Greta Gerwig, who plays Brooke and co-wrote the script, is the ambassador for this strain of American indie: she’s kooky, witty, sharply observant, and just a little annoying.