‘Mistress America” is a decided improvement over “Frances Ha” (2013), the last movie that writer-director Noah Baumbach made with his real-life leading lady, Greta Gerwig. “Frances,” fey and shot in black-and-white, was the equivalent of a man rhapsodizing about his new girlfriend until you wanted to throttle him. “Mistress America,” once again co-written with Gerwig, takes a step back and acknowledges that other people exist; it’s chatty and witty and brittle and very New York. What it feels like, mostly, is a Whit Stillman movie made by someone other than Whit Stillman.
I guess that makes sense. Gerwig was the star of Stillman’s last film, the tutti-frutti “Damsels in Distress” (2011), and she’s able to converse on that plane of high Manhattan folderol of which 1990’s “Metropolitan” is still the ne plus ultra. But if you’ve seen “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” or the recent “While We’re Young,” you know that Baumbach is fascinated by the ways smart people can outsmart themselves, and so he gives Stillman’s cool template a comical hotfoot.
The main character of “Mistress America,” actually, is Tracy (Lola Kirke), a Barnard freshman and shy baby cynic who’s having trouble fitting in. “New York is like being at a party where you don’t know anyone — all the time,” she tells her mother, who’s about to be married to a man she met online and who tells her daughter to look up her future stepsister, the 30-something Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy eventually calls the woman, meets her at a bar, and is instantly smitten. Damned if we aren’t, too.
Brooke is a Character, a New York girl of the moment who’s vaguely aware that her moment is almost over. She works as an interior decorator, a tutor, a spinning instructor. She wants to create an app or write a TV series (“which I’ve heard is the new novel”) or open a combination restaurant-boutique-hair salon. She says things like “I’m an autodidact. That word is one of the things I self-taught myself.” She’s a postmodern Holly Golightly, Eloise all grown up, and Baumbach and Gerwig allow us the distance, through Tracy, to see Brooke in all her shallow, self-absorbed wonderment. Watching her is like coming across a slightly carnivorous gazelle in Central Park.
As Tracy and Brooke swan around the city, the younger woman, who has ambitions of being a writer, starts taking notes and fashioning a rather brutal short story. Who wouldn’t? “Mistress America” is clear-eyed enough to see Brooke’s callous side — there’s a funny scene where she’s accosted by a woman (Rebecca Henderson) she tormented back in middle school and whom she only manages to enrage further — and it’s aware of the shark in Tracy as well. The latter is seen pocketing small items from other people’s apartments, and she’s a thief of Brooke’s life, too — is that what it takes to become an artist? (Kirke is the sister of Jemima Kirke of HBO’s “Girls”; they share a casual family hardness.)
After a while. “Mistress America” runs out of gas, so Baumbach and Gerwig send everyone out to the Connecticut suburbs for some old-fashioned drawing-room farce. Needing cash to salvage her restaurant plans, Brooke crashes the Greenwich home of a longtime frenemy, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind, excellent), who’s in the midst of a book group meeting (they’re discussing Faulkner; next week, Derrida). Along for the ride are Tony (Matthew Shear), an insecure fellow writing student, and his jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones); by the time they’re joined by Mamie-Claire’s hipster stockbroker husband (Michael Chernus), a pregnant Korean-American lawyer (Cindy Cheung), and a preppie neighbor (ex-Luna rocker Dean Wareham, who also co-wrote the score), “Mistress America” is getting more crowded than the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera.”
This makes for a surprising amount of fun, if not to any discernible purpose. I guess there are lessons learned in “Mistress America,” but what sustains the film is its fascination with a group of lovely, horrible people — narcissists who are nevertheless able to improvise something glittering and almost meaningful out of their inability to matter. As in “Frances Ha,” a sadness lurks beneath the frippery, but beneath even that there’s a resilience the filmmakers can’t help but admire. “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath,” Brooke says to Tracy, who shrugs and replies, “I’m just normal.” Anyway, any New York survivor would tell you they’re the same thing.