Midway through Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s “Mistress America,” the movie arrives at a long, zany setpiece so inspired and brilliantly sustained that it alone would be worth the price of admission (or the wait in a long Sundance queue). But there’s much else to admire in “Mistress,” which finds the crown prince of New York intellectual self-loathing and his ebullient co-writer/muse returning to the terrain of their 2012 “Frances Ha” — intense female friendships and eager young people trying to find their places in the world — while pushing even closer to full-tilt screwball farce. One of Baumbach’s warmest and purely funniest films, this Fox Searchlight pickup may lack the name cast of the filmmaker’s other 2015 release, “While We’re Young,” but positioned properly it could reach Baumbach’s broadest audience since 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale.”
If nothing else, “Mistress America” confirms Gerwig as one of the great, fearless screen comediennes of her generation — a tall, loose-limbed whirligig who careers through scenes with the beatific ditziness of a Carole Lombard or Judy Holliday. This time around, she and Baumbach have cooked up a doozy of a role in Brooke, a self-styled interior designer/aerobics instructor/social-media maven who takes on life at such high velocity that no one — least of all Brooke herself — has time to notice that she’s barely hanging on by a thread. She’s the sort of person the shy, awkward Frances Halladay would have looked on with envy — a Zelig-ish character who seems to have New York tied around her little finger, whether running onstage with the band at a trendy nightclub, scaling the fire escape to her chic industrial loft, or soliciting investors for the quaint, family-style Williamsburg restaurant she plans to open with her absent boyfriend (who is, she proclaims with the utmost certainty, “off in Greece betting against the economy or something”).
That Brooke is a flurry of self-invention seems fairly obvious — but not, at first, to Tracy (newcomer Lola Kirke), a freshman in her first semester at Barnard College whose divorcee mom (Kathryn Erbe) is about to marry Brooke’s widower dad. The two prospective stepsisters meet-cute in Times Square, where Gerwig has a great entrance, sashaying down the red steps behind the discount TKTS booth like a star in the reality series of her mind.
Tracy, an aspiring writer who’s having a tough time fitting in at school (“It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anybody, all the time,” she laments), marvels at Brooke’s unbridled joie de vivre; Brooke, who already feels over-the-hill at 30, feels similarly energized by her young admirer. By the time their first night together is up, the seeds of a short story have begun to take root in Tracy’s mind — a development that allows Baumbach to once again riff wryly on ideas of artistic license and intellectual property, favorite subjects of a filmmaker who has himself drawn deeply at the well of personal experience.
In “While We’re Young,” Baumbach satirized the idea of a 40-something director trying to get in touch with the youth of today. But with “Frances Ha” and now “Mistress America,” Baumbach has managed to pull off that very trick. Like one of his own filmmaking idols, Eric Rohmer, he seems to have remained very much an adolescent at heart, and he’s one of the few American filmmakers to embrace young people in all of their amorphous identity, occasional callowness and naive optimism, rather than pigeonholing them into cookie-cutter types (the jock, the nerd, the sensitive loner vampire, et al.).
Kirke, who filmed this role before her breakout turn in “Gone Girl” (as the trailer-trash vixen who befriends, then robs, the runaway bride), makes an even bigger impression here as the quietly intense writer scanning her surroundings for inspiration, ably holding her own against the formidable presence of Gerwig (with whom she shares terrific chemistry). And Baumbach rounds out the cast with a couple of other discoveries: the very funny Matthew Shear as Tracy’s tightly wound classmate (and unrequited crush) and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as his petulant jealous girlfriend.
Somehow — and the less said the better — “Mistress America” manages to put all these characters together in a single car en route to Connecticut (location for many a great screwball farce), where a desperate Brooke, her restaurant plans teetering on the brink of collapse, hopes to secure an investment from the “ex-friend” (Heather Lind) whom she claims stole her idea for a line of designer T-shirts, as well as her fiancee. What follows is some of the best directing Baumbach has ever done: a rapid-fire succession of perfectly timed entrances, exits and outlandish complications (nosy neighbors, pregnant women, attempted cuckolding, group literary criticism) that builds and builds and, just when you think Baumbach can’t possibly take it any further, builds some more (much of it in long, complicated traveling master shots). It’s a dazzling sequence, and Gerwig is a marvel to behold in it — shrieking, blaming, groveling, goading and, finally, arriving at a place of real feeling where the real Brooke stands revealed, stripped of her artifices, if only for a moment.
As with “Frances Ha,” Baumbach and Gerwig made “Mistress America” somewhat clandestinely, with a small crew and a leisurely post-production, and this looser way of working is once again reflected in the movie itself, which bristles with kinetic energy for the brief 84 minutes it’s onscreen. A decade on from composing duties on “The Squid and the Whale,” the duo of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips return here with a memorable original score steeped in ’80s-style New Wave synth pop.