The film was The Squid and the Whale – a droll and acerbic satire on academics, literary pretensions, the obsessive jealousy of writers and their desperation to “make it ”.
When I discussed it with some American writers, they admitted they didn’t find it witty or even amusing. Irony has never been a strong card in the American humour pack. These characters were losers and they didn’t find that funny.
Perhaps that is why Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, is more in the tradition of screwball comedy than lacerating satire. There is the same obsession with narcissistic characters who talk incessantly about themselves and their overwhelming desire to “make it” big-time, but the irony has been drowned out with the absurd situation comedy in which they find themselves.
Baumbach’s collaborator in life and in this film, Greta Gerwig, is also its star. She plays Brooke, a 30-something New Yorker who is determined to be influential and famous but apart from talking about it, never seems to achieve anything.
Brooke talks like a machine gun, mostly about herself, without ever listening to anything anyone else says. She announces that she is an auto-didact, and adds: “That word is one of the words I self-taught myself.”
She calls herself “a curator”, which is apparently the latest word people with grandiose aspirations and little talent use to describe themselves.
The other main character is Tracy Fishcoe (they must have had fun making up that name), a lonely, naive freshman at Columbia University. She is desperate to be chosen to join the Literary Society, which wakes up its chosen members in the middle of the night with a pie in their face and a new briefcase which they all carry around the campus to show how “special” they are.
The film gathers speed when Tracy meets Brooke, who becomes her role model. Tracy’s mother is marrying Brooke’s father, a widower whom she met on the internet. From their first meeting, Tracy and Brooke conduct parallel monologues about themselves and their grand delusions.
Tracy is determined to help Brooke fulfil her dream of creating a new kind of restaurant called “Mom’s” (her mother is dead, which she weaves dramatically into every conversation) where you can have your hair cut, have your children looked after, discuss serious literature and, of course, eat comfort food. When her boyfriend backer dumps her, she visits a spiritualist who tells her she will get the funds from her former flatmate who not only stole a former rich boyfriend from her but also a T-shirt idea which proved to be very lucrative.
This is where this situation comedy turns into farce and the scriptwriters have a field day sending everyone up.
The all-Australian audience with whom I watched the film laughed a lot.
Fortunately, we Australians have not been injected at birth with the current version of the American Dream which allows everyone to think that fame and fortune is there for the taking as long as you believe that you are special and talented and therefore deserve success.
America has no time for losers. Australia rather likes them, especially if they have given it their battler best. After, all our national song, Waltzing Matilda, celebrates a swaggie who, when confronted by the coppers for stealing a sheep, jumps into the billabong and drowns. No shame there.
So it’s hard to hate these characters or even to feel sorry for them. They are merely products of the self-delusions and narcissistic culture that Baumbach and Gerwig are doing their best to send up.
These two scriptwriters are the younger inheritors of the dialogue-driven style of Woody Allen. If you like films that send up American pretension in all its ludicrous manifestations, this film is for you.
One day soon, I would love to see a film titled Mistress Australia.
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