Failure, Theft, Schlemiels, and Millennials: On Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America”

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Noah Baumbach has a penchant for contrasting the young and the old, the naïve and the shrewd, the ethical person and the thief.   Many of his characters are immature and, at an older age, seem caught up in a life that they haven’t grown out of. They are dreamers and schlemiels. For instance, in a film like Greenberg (2010) – which bases the main character, Roger Greenberg, on Saul Bellow’s Herzog – the main character, played by Ben Stiller, is older and seems to be in worse shape than Florence (who is played by Gretta Gerwig).   In this film, there is a contrast based on age. But in the end, both of them are in bad shape.   They are not sure about how to have and sustain a relationship and are both awkward around each other. They live in their own little universes and, because they can’t be successful in “normal” jobs they take on jobs (such as babysitting, dogwalking, etc) that are for people who – Baumbach suggests – just aren’t made for this fast paced capitalist world.   (Greenberg and Gertig meet because they are taking care of odds and ends for Phillip Greenberg.)   Richard Brody, of The New Yorker, found the film to be sickening and was repulsed by Stiller’s depressing character.

However, both he and Ian Packer –also of The New Yorker – were impressed with Frances Ha (2012). What they both liked about the film was the fact that it was more a film by and about Gretta Gerwig and her positive (“happy”) vision of life, and less about Noah Baumbach’s more somber and dark view of humanity (as we can see in a film like Greenberg).

Packer’s insightful contrasts between Gertig and Baumbach are noteworthy in the sense that they can help us to better understand where the dark and the light come into each Gerwig-Baumbach production.

On this note, While We’re Young (2015) and Mistress America (2015) have some similarities but a few key differences.   I have written on While We’re Young.   What I liked about that film is the fact that, in it, we can see the contrast between the older schlemiel (Ben Stiller) and the younger and shrewder millennials (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

The contrast outlines the ethical nature of the schlemiel and how he is duped by the millennials.   They are portrayed as thieves who only look to get ahead while he is portrayed as a filmmaker who, like Greenberg, is not successful but has a desire to do good in the world.

Likewise, Mistress America has an older character (in her early 30s), played by Gretta Gerwig. Her name is Brooke. Her younger to-be-step-sister (which never really happens) is named Tracey. She is played by Lola Kirke. She is an 18 year old girl who majors in English at Barnard.   Just like While We’re Young, we have a plot twist in which the younger (millennial) seems to have a great interest in a failed, older schlemiel character (Brooke) but, in the end, we learn that she spent time with her so as to turn her comedic life into a short story for a campus literary journal.

While Gerwig’s character continues to fail and remains honest and ethical until the very end (side note: we learn that Brooke’s old friend had stolen her ideas; in fact, she is a schlemiel-dreamer who doesn’t know how to fully capitalize on her ideas), Kirke’s character, Tracey, steals throughout the film and, in the end, is successful: her article is printed up in the literary journal and she is “accepted.”   Brooke, on the other hand, remains a failure. As Brooke herself notes in the film, the older you get the less opportunities there are for success. Brooke sees herself as an old maid (at 30) who is dragging around a dead body with her wherever she goes. This depressing vision most likely emerges from Baumbach since Gertig goes from being a schlemiel to being a very tragic kind of character.

In the end, Baumbach, once again, lays down his judgment on the schlemiel: that in the age of millennials, the ethical schlemiel doesn’t have a chance; this era lives under the sign of theft in the name of success. This dower judgment is that of a filmmaker who has lost hope in the possibility of ethical art. For Baumbach – and perhaps now for Gertig – its dead. The hedge funder from Goldman Sacks – who says he will bail Brooke out (since they are old friends) – seems to have the last word: don’t do anything wholesome or ethical if it’s going to drain your time and money.   In other words, it’s better to be practical than to be a schlemiel-dreamer (a luftmensch).  This dovetails with Tracey’s theft.   The main goal in America is to be successful. The name of the film gives it away. Instead of being a Miss America one should be a “mistress America.” The message is dour: do things that are unethical if they will get you ahead.  For Baumbach and perhaps Gertig, the schlemiel is sacrificed on the alter of millennial success and theft-as-a-means-to-success.

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