Brooke, Greta Gerwig's latest Manhattan creation, is a hurricane gobbling up lives. She's a singer, restaurateur, interior decorator, math coach, spinning instructor, and self-described autodidact. When eighteen-year-old admirer Tracy (Lola Kirke), Brooke's sister-to-be following their parents' Thanksgiving wedding, squeaks that she wants to write short stories, Brooke devours that idea, too — only, as she insists, her as-yet-unwritten fiction will be longer.
Brooke can't help being the focal point of Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, though Tracy, an adrift college freshman, is its supposed star. Watching, we're all absorbed by Brooke and her delusional Dorothy Parker–esque pronouncements. "There's nothing I don't know about myself," she declares. "That's why I can't go to therapy."
Like Brooke's dream business, a café/convenience store/hair salon, Mistress America is a mishmash of ideas — fortunately, Kirke gives a fantastic performance that quietly grounds the film. The beginning and end work as, respectively, a naturalistic comedy about impressionable girls and a drama about the same. Baumbach and co-writer Gerwig nail the details of proto-adulthood. Ginned up by Brooke's moxie, Tracy blooms from wallflower to budding Big Woman on Campus. Despite her infatuation with her role model, Tracy writes a piece about who Brooke really is, albeit through the eyes of a kid who thinks that anyone pushing 30 is "dragging around the rotting carcass" of their youth. In a wicked and perfect gag, Brooke gets confronted by a former classmate she bullied in high school. When the woman presses for an apology, Brooke's noblesse oblige turns into a shiv. Unlike Tracy, she's purposefully cruel.
But in the clumsy middle sequence, set in a Connecticut mansion, Baumbach inserts a screwball farce that stops the movie cold.