Death of a Maître d

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

The central sequence of this film feels like a stage play: Brooke (Greta Gerwig) wants to open her dream restaurant in New York but is several thousand short, so has travelled to Greenwich, Connecticut (screwball comedy central) to borrow the money from her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) who had previous stolen her best idea for a tshirt, her kittens and her fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). She has been driven there by Harold (Matthew Shear), friend of her soon to be step-sister Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and Harold’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Brooke is a dreamer, probably self deluded, the kind of role that a Ricky Gervais or a Ben Stiller or a Jim Carey would play at any opportunity — a motor mouth, turning on a sixpence, full of how great they are and how dreadful others are. It’s rare that it’s a female character, although it clearly offers a version of the unruly woman. It’s a twenty or thirty year younger version of Edina and Patsy. Her dream of a restaurant, Mom’s, where you could get a hair cut and would be a shop in the day and where her children when she has them would do their homework, needs money, but we go through various shades of farce as she attempts to get it — foiled by a pregnant lawyer at Maire-Claire’s bookclub, a snide neighbour and Nicolette’s jealousy of Tracy.

Tracy is meant to be the viewpoint character — in her first term at a swanky New York university, wanting to be a writer and to join the university’s fraternity (of writers) and the Nick to Brooke’s Gatsby or the I to her Withnail. Tracy has stolen Brooke’s character for her latest fiction, something that will lead to friction. She is dull of course, but we should luxuriate in a rare example of a movie built around female friendships. There is a minor drama around how far she will become like Brooke, but there’s more of a sense that she can see through her whilst wanted to give support.

Your liking of the film will depend on your liking for cringe comedy — think of the embarrassments of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and (restaurant investor) Larry David. At times it’s nails on a blackboard, fingers on a balloon, laughing bat rather than with. But it also has that awkwardness of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the tragic hero of the American Dream, who believes the tales he spins because to sell objects requires commodifying the seller. You can see straight through him and yet don’t want him to fail.

It is surely no accident that the film is Mistress America: Brooke becomes the personification of the American Dream that anyone can make it. She’s brash, self-deluded, yes, but also determined and ambitious. We don’t have to like her — but I think we can respect her.

Meanwhile, how does the film fit into the history of the bizarre post-apocalyptic depictions of New York in which all People of Colour have been wiped out? Well, Brooke has an African American neighbour, there’s the pregnant lawyer in Connecticut and, of course, Nicolette, whose jealousy reminds me of Angela (Jaz Sinclair) in Paper Towns. Is the indie-flavoured young female of colour there to be insecure or clingy? I hope not, but it’s just a sample of two.

All in all, an interesting film, although I can’t say I laughed out loud more than once or twice. But Baumbach and Gerwig, cowriters here, have plainly hit a groove that will be interesting to follow (and I should look up Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), which is clearly on a similar theme).

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