Noah Baumbach comedies are deceptive and unsettling affairs. There is always a sourness alongside the humour. He probes away at the misery and bad faith of characters who, at least initially, seem like comic archetypes. Mistress America, which he co-wrote with the lead actress Greta Gerwig, is typical Baumbach fare. In the breezy early scenes, Gerwig's character Brooke seems like a latter-day version of Truman Capote's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. She is an effortlessly stylish New Yorker, beautiful and unconventional. Lonely young college student Tracy (Kirke), soon to become her stepsister, seemingly idolises Brooke and envies her life.
Tracy has literary ambitions and is writing a story in which Brooke is the main character. Her writing takes a subtle and ambivalent approach to its subject. She spots the cracks in Brooke's make-up, her delusions and her vanity. At the same time, Tracy is predatory. She pretends to be Brooke's friend and acolyte when she is using her.
What starts as a New York-set movie turns into a picaresque road movie as Brooke heads out of town to try to persuade a wealthy former boyfriend (Michael Chernus) into backing her half-baked scheme for a restaurant.
Baumbach gets under the skin of his characters. He highlights their less attractive qualities. Sometimes, most notably with Margot at the Wedding (2007), this approach risks repelling audiences. Mistress America is easier to stomach. There's a fine performance from Gerwig as the free-spirited but increasingly desperate heroine and a quiet, sly one from Kirke as her two-faced friend. The film is perceptive, well-written and frequently funny in Baumbach's familiar, deadpan way. It is a comedy with barbs and an unlikely undercurrent of pathos.