Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Mistress America is that rare thing: a grown-up film that owes a debt to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This is not to say that Mark Twain's books haven't inspired adult films, but this has often been done indirectly via other novels, such as The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. As Hemmingway said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "All American writing comes from that". In cinema, the direct influence of Twain's imaginary America has been more obvious in comedy-action films, from the Indiana Jones franchise to Bill and Ted's various adventures. What is doubly remarkable is that Mistress America changes both gender and perspective, with the younger Tom (Tracy, played by Lola Kirke) documenting the adventures of the older Huck (Brooke, played by co-writer Gerwig). What remains constant is the trouble that the two characters delusions, a love of stories and adventure respectively, spawn in their lives.
The film is structured into three acts and an epilogue - a "chapter the last", in Twain's formulation - and a fitting epigraph might have been taken from among Huck's last words, "if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it and ain't agoing to no more". This is a story about the contrasting and conflicting difficulties of living and writing. The first act is the setup - an episodic collage that introduces Tracy, a straight-outta-suburbia freshman student at New York's Barnard College and aspiring writer. Her assigned roommate is a black hole of negativity and her classmates are patronising dicks or social losers. Like her. Her ambition is to be accepted into the exclusive Mobius Literary Society, a clique of talentless snobs. She is rejected by them, and then by fellow rejected scribbler Tony, who chooses the possessive Nicolette as his girlfriend instead. This is a parody of the prematurely middle-aged that will find an echo in the ambition, materialism and vindictiveness of the third act. The influence of Woody Allen is front and centre. The mood is sour, wry and the visual palette is mostly brown and grey.
The middle act is the womance, a conscious escape from her empty life, in which the younger Tracy hooks up with Brooke (frequently referred to as "Bro"), her soon-to-be-stepsister-by-remarriage. Tracy is entertained and fascinated by the 30-year-old technicolor Brooke, much as Nick Carraway was by the slow-motion train-wreck of Jay Gatsby. New York itself is most visible as a character in this section, but despite the clichéd tour of contemporary hipsterdom (there's a cameo by the Dirty Projectors), it's the fragments that echo earlier gleaming visions, from Breakfast at Tiffany's via Desperately Seeking Susan to Sex and the City, that catch the eye. Brooke has a portfolio career, relentlessly "curated" online, that combines being an under-employed interior designer, spin class leader and home tutor with grand plans to open a restaurant in Williamsburg with her absent Greek boyfriend, Stavros. In other words, she has been vainly trying to monetise her personality for over a decade. She is clued-up, highly-networked and going nowhere.
Her home is a loft space zoned as commercial - i.e. it's illegal. Her world soon falls apart as Stavros dumps her and the restaurant and she is locked-out of the apartment. In the key scene of the act, an old school contemporary of Brooke upbraids her for her historic cruelty - she sarcastically accused others of being bitter - which highlights both Brooke's own contemporary bitterness and her tendency to confuse an unwillingness to confront the consequences of her actions with largeness of spirit. After visiting a wry medium ("you must listen to spirit"), who fulfils the role reserved for psychoanalysts in the Woody Allen canon, her anger is redirected towards Mamie-Claire, a former friend who apparently stole Brooke's earlier boyfriend, Dylan, her two cats and the idea for a t-shirt design that was sold to J.Crew (Mamie-Claire will later justify the cats through investment - "I paid the vet bills so I own them" - and the theft of intellectual capital through superior exploitation - Brooke was incapable of monetising the idea). Brooke and Tracy set off to confront this "nemesis", who now lives a comfortable life in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Despite the nods to screwball comedy (rapid-fire repartee, the country house setting, unexpected guests etc), the third act is a gloriously stagey farce whose increasingly surreal plot and rhetoric owe more to Bunuel, Renoir and Godard than Hawks, Cukor or Sturges. The visual style is Le Corbusier off-white. It's the most European part of the film, which perhaps explains why some American critics seem uncomfortable with it. Brooke seeks restitution from Mamie-Claire and Dylan in the form of investment in her restaurant. Dylan offers to pay off her debts, but insists on dropping the restaurant idea, the implication being that he expects her to become his mistress. Brooke refuses. The possessive Nicollette, convinced that Tracy is trying to steal Tony (the two have been roped-in by Tracy and Brooke for the trip because Tony has a car), finds Tracy's short story about Brooke, Mistress America, reads it and then denounces Tracy to Brooke and the rest as a monster of self-regard. The ensemble, including Mamie-Claire's pregnant tax lawyer friend, Karen, and a resentful paediatrician neighbour, Harold (played by the film's co-composer, Dean Wareham), interrogate and judge Tracy.
A European film would end at this point, but Noah Baumbach reveals his larger, optimistic purpose by adding an extended epilogue in which Tracy and Brooke are reconciled, Brooke reveals she has paid off her debts and will finally go to college (funded by a pay-off from Mamie-Claire, who is desperate to save her marriage to Dylan), and that she is lighting out for the new territory and promise of LA, somewhere that may suit her personality better. Tracy finally eulogises her friend's spirit, despite the self-deceit and failure to follow-through on plans (it's worth noting that Brooke could probably have secured the pay-out earlier, but it took Tracy's prompting to make it happen), because she is a refreshing contrast to the narrow calculation and selfishness of others: "she was the bonfire to their matches". In this she echoes Nick Carraway's celebration of Jay Gatsby for the sincerity of his shallow beliefs. The visual tone of the epilogue starts with the muted browns of the first act, but finishes with the warmer colours of the second.
There are a number of interesting motifs in the film, showing a degree of care that most reviews have skipped over. As the film itself makes clear, we live in an era when social media requires opinion to be cut down to the punch of a tweet. "Must we document ourselves all the time", Brooke faux-naively asks at one point, and then goes on to insist there is a huge difference between parasitically tweeting someone else's bon mots and using their character as the basis for a work of fiction. The entr'actes feature glass: the cracked glass of a smartphone screen, when Tracy decides to call Brooke for the first time; the crystal ball of the medium, which sets Brooke and Tracy off to Connecticut; the dirty windows Tracy peers through when she seeks out Brooke for their reconciliation. The epilogue ends with a view from the street, through glass, into a restaurant where the two are laughing. Like the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the film is also marked by absent and unreliable men: Brooke's dad is only ever heard on the phone; her boyfriend Stavros is only heard from second-hand; pregnant Karen waits vainly for her husband to pick her up in the third act.
The film is parodically postmodern: it even critiques its own title. Brooke is asked to make her business pitch to Dylan and Mamie-Claire on their "media-stage", fluffs her opening speech and makes a weak visual joke about rewinding, finally producing the hilarious line: "It’s a restaurant, but also where you cut hair". The Mobius Literary Society is a transplant from a pre-email age, requiring short-stories to be submitted on onion-skin paper and deposited in a drop-box in full view of its members. At one point Brooke pines for the class certainties of feudalism. Inter-textuality is rife. The third act interrupts Mamie-Claire's reading group of pregnant Stepford wives discussing Faulkner's The Hamlet and a "slim biography of Derrida". There is a recurrent trope of critical feedback ("do you want notes?"), which allows the writers to neutralise the potential criticism that they have created female characters who are vicious and amoral by having Mamie-Claire critique Tracy's story on similar grounds. But despite this Old World sophistication, the film remains a paean to New World optimism: second chances, reinvention, the limitless opportunity out West. And its got lots of jokes.