Michael Mohan‘s latest film, Pink Grapefruit, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won the Narrative Jury Prize at SXSW. He most recently directed a series of branded films for Kate Spade starring Anna Kendrick and Lily Tomlin. Other credits include Save the Date, starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr. Currently, he’s co-writing The Ends for the production company Big Beach. See more of his work at michaelmohan.com.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, there used to be a total hole-in-the-wall movie memorabilia store halfway between Harvard and Central Square. They sold the usual posters and lobby cards, but also had pirated copies of unproduced screenplays.
Whenever I was home visiting my parents, I’d pick up as many scripts as I could afford and instantly devour them. Some of them never got made, such as Mike Myers’ hilarious script for Sprockets. Some of them did, but the tone of the script and the tone of the movie were fascinatingly different, like Cameron Crowe’s script for Elizabethtown. But one of the most treasured scripts in this growing stack was for The Squid and the Whale.
The cover page of the script mistakenly credited Wes Anderson as a co-writer on the film (probably confusing his producer credit with their shared co-writer credit on Life Aquatic), and that’s perhaps why I picked it up. I read it multiple times, marveling at how the characters were so terribly funny but also terribly sad. Back then, access to information about upcoming movies was far more limited than now, so I had no idea if the film was getting made or not.
Around this time, my friend Hrishikesh introduced me to Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. I just fell in love with it. It’s a film you quote with your friends. The characters, the dialogue – it’s a film you just want to hang out in forever.
Eventually I started working at Sundance in the fall of 2004, and when it was announced that The Squid and the Whale was premiering that following January, I was so excited. It’s hard to describe, but you know how if you really get into a band that isn’t widely popular, they sort of become part of your identity? They become your band. That’s what this was like.
The film delivered on the promise of the script and then some. In fact, there’s one bit of subtle texture in one of the scenes that I don’t think was in the draft on my shelf. Jeff Daniels’ father character has called a family meeting to let the kids know of an impending divorce, and at the top of the scene we hear the offscreen sound of a toilet flush, then Laura Linney walks in and sits down. One of the kids blocks his face and says, “Oh, mom.” To which she responds: “Sorry.” And the scene continues like nothing happened.
To me, these are the moments that make his films special. Because it’s not just a throwaway joke. It’s a real moment of relatable humor baked into something fairly tragic. And it’s oddly metaphorical too, as Mom has literally stunk up the room.
In the years since, my admiration for Baumbach’s work has only grown. In an era where most adult comedies are misshapen organisms cobbled together through bits of test-screen-audience-approved improvisation, I have a massive amount of respect for anyone who works with such intent and restraint. You empathize with his characters not because they’ve saved a metaphorical cat, but because they remind you of a past, present, or future version of yourself. The drama is rarely manufactured from plot, but usually stems from the characters going through some kind of real transition. And somehow he always manages to do this hilariously without ever betraying the characters or dramatic situations.
Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, is no exception. I saw it for the first time this past July at BAM and was completely blindsided by how funny it was. Baumbach’s films are usually very funny, but this one just goes for broke. I honestly cannot remember the last time I laughed this hard and this frequently while watching a movie. The story is all about the new relationship between Tracy, an impressionable creative writing student (Lola Kirke), and her soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a beyond-outgoing, self-centered firecracker. A majority of the film unfolds over one impressive sequence where Tracy and her college acquaintances drive Brooke to Connecticut to visit a rich “best friend/mortal enemy” in the hopes of convincing her husband to invest in Brooke’s restaurant/hair salon.
Gerwig’s performance is absolutely outstanding. She’s like a modern version of Dianne Wiest’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, but with 10 times the confidence and far inferior listening skills. 90% of the words that come out of her mouth are destined for this movie’s IMDb Memorable Quotes page. In fact, Hrishikesh, the same friend that introduced me to Kicking and Screaming, texted me a few hours ago one of the quotes from Mistress America. (“I’m an autodidact. You know what an autodidact is? That’s one of the things I self-taught myself!”)
But the restraint Baumbach brings to this is so fresh. Sam Levy’s photography is beautiful and understated as always, with soft natural lighting, unfolding primarily in medium shots, and saving the close-ups for the moments that matter. Jennifer Lame’s editing is so tasteful; some scenes use simple moving masters, allowing us to wallow in the pure energy of the actors without manipulation. Other scenes sharply underscore the tension (one in particular where an old acquaintance of Brooke’s confronts her in a bar for being so terrible to her in high school— it’s the first time where the actual editing of a scene made me laugh). Last but not least, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ beautiful retro score meshes perfectly with the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Toto songs also appearing on the soundtrack. For a film with so many downright wacky moments, it’s fully cohesive.
Unlike a film such as Birdman, which announces its impressiveness to even the least discerning of audiences, Mistress America is especially remarkable because of this understatement. The pacing of the film, specifically the dialogue, is at a breakneck His Girl Friday tempo. I can only speculate that Gerwig and Baumbach spent a considerable amount of time writing and rehearsing, and did so in such a way that these scenes stayed fresh and the audience feels like they’re part of the fun rather than watching something that is tired and overworked. It’s a technical feat that most audiences are going to be completely unaware of.
Watching Mistress America a second time, I loved it just as much, but found myself relating more deeply to these characters. While Gerwig’s Brooke is bold and brazen to the point of intentional parody, I think a lot of people of my generation are just starting to learn that optimism isn’t a currency. In fact, a blind hope that things are “just going to work out,” can sometimes create roadblocks, or cause us to avoid other very real problems that get in our way, whether it be in our relationships or career. If “coming of age” is a thing, then it most certainly happened to me only a year or so ago when I was the same age as Gerwig’s character.
It really is fascinating to think that the generation after mine, while it might be more naïve or aloof, also seems to be somehow more well-balanced. Baumbach explored that to a larger degree in his last film, While We’re Young, with brilliant montages contrasting the older characters struggling with digital Netflix navigational menus with the younger characters easily enjoying the analogue simplicity of VHS. While it may seem like an ironic choice, I think that distinction is fully truthful. In this new film, the distinction is a little less black and white.
During the course of Mistress America, Tracy writes a lightly fictionalized story about Brooke that she submits to the school’s literary society. It’s regarded as her best work, and in that way Brooke’s influence on Tracy and her creative work is very clear. Yet, even though Tracy is younger, her influence on Brooke is ultimately far more palpable, leading to an ending that is so bittersweet and heartwarming.
Baumbach is the kind of filmmaker who pokes fun at people who speak up in book clubs, and perhaps he’d dismiss my theorizing that this alleged message in the film is personal to him. All I can say is that his collaborations with Gerwig thus far somehow manage to feel completely timely and timeless at the same time. I can only imagine that cultivating the opportunity to be so prolific causes one to be less precious, resulting in work that is just as free-spirited in tone as Gerwig’s character.
Either way, for me, as a longtime fan of Baumbach’s work, I would be totally happy to watch him make the same movie over and over again, but it’s even more inspiring to see him tackle a film with such a risky tone, and to do so this thoughtfully. Even if you’re not familiar with his work, Mistress America is a film that is impossible to not find hilarious, and I can’t recommend it more highly.