Both of Noah Baumbach’s parents reviewed movies when he was growing up in Brooklyn.
So it may not be a surprise that Baumbach, 45, became a writer/director whose films often pay homage to screen influences like Woody Allen and Hal Ashby.
Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s co-writer and his on- and off-screen muse, was not exposed to such a wide array of films during her childhood in Sacramento, Calif. There was a Blockbuster and other video stores, “but they didn’t have a lot of breadth,” said Gerwig, 32.
“It wasn’t until I got to college at Barnard that I became interested in seeing older movies at Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image. Kim’s Video in the East Village organized the films by directors, and that was also a big shift for me.”
In line with their shared enthusiasms, Baumbach and Gerwig’s new film, “Mistress America,” melds two genres from earlier eras: the fast-talking screwball farces of the 1930s and 1940s and the odd-couple comedies of the 1980s. The film opens Friday in Kansas City.
Gerwig stars as Brooke, a madcap New Yorker who takes her soon-to-be stepsister, the seemingly naive but secretly calculating college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), on a manic misadventure. With a growing entourage, their journey culminates inside a glass house in Greenwich, Conn., where Brooke tries to persuade her wealthy ex-boyfriend (Michael Chernus), who is married to her former best friend, to invest in her crackpot scheme for a home-cooking restaurant/hair salon/art gallery that she imagines will be her ticket out of the rat race.
“We talked about the idea of a more straight-edged, square character getting sucked into an underworld by a dangerous woman,” Gerwig said. “These kinds of women seem to have disappeared from movies. They’re not safe in any way. I just found myself inspired by them and feeling like I hadn’t seen them in a long time.”
In a recent sit-down in Manhattan, the couple ticked off a list of the films that resonated most for them in making “Mistress America” and discussed them with glee, frequently finishing each other’s thoughts.
“The best thing is talking about other people’s movies,” Baumbach said. Gerwig added, “It’s so much easier than talking about your own.”
▪ “Holiday” (1938): George Cukor’s adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1928 play casts Cary Grant as a striver who plots an exit from the business world while falling for the free-spirited sister (Katharine Hepburn) of his strait-laced fiancée.
Gerwig: Maybe because I love theater so much, I have an instant entry point into movies in which the fluency of language is as important as any other aspect of the filmmaking. The sequence at the house in “Mistress America” is the closest I’ve felt in film to doing theater because there were eight people in a shot and a lot of lines.
Baumbach: People with different points of view and motivations interacting.
Gerwig: There’s something about Katharine Hepburn’s spirit on screen that feels like it transcended any expectation of what women were supposed to be at that time while still being stylish and sexy. She’s funny and wild, and she can really sling it.
▪ “To Be or Not to Be” (1942): In Ernst Lubitsch’s farce, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard are members of an acting troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland who must put on the performances of their lives to save themselves.
Gerwig: Brooke, throughout our film, has a costume for every occasion. When she meets her business partner, she has her briefcase, and when she goes to work as a tutor, she puts on glasses and has a whole other look. She’s constantly performing.
Baumbach: The characters in “To Be or Not to Be” are acting the whole time — it’s their way of escape, and they perform for each other in their downtime.
Gerwig: Carole Lombard, of all the women, is the top.
Baumbach: She wasn’t afraid to go for it.
Gerwig: I identified with her ability to give a big performance that still remains true on screen. I’ve gone through different phases where I thought, “Well, film acting’s all in the eyes.” Not for Carole Lombard. It’s all the way to her fingertips.
▪ “Shampoo” (1975): Warren Beatty plays a promiscuous Beverly Hills hairdresser managing his tangled romantic life on the day of the 1968 presidential election in Hal Ashby’s sharp satire of capitalism and American values.
Gerwig: I remember explicitly talking about how in “Shampoo,” they stay at a dinner party far longer than you expect, like we do at the glass house. Warren Beatty’s character has this dream of owning a hair salon, like Brooke does, and it gets thwarted. But the thing that destroys him is himself.
Baumbach: The threat of Jack Warden as a jealous husband is real, but he’s so funny and likable, even when he’s going to beat Warren Beatty’s character up. Michael Chernus reminded me of Jack Warden. He behaves disgustingly when he makes a pass at Brooke, but you kind of like him anyway.
▪ “Tootsie” (1982): Pounding the Manhattan pavement in high heels, Dustin Hoffman cross-dresses for success as a soap-opera actor in Sydney Pollack’s exuberant romantic comedy.
Baumbach: “Tootsie” has an incredible opening sequence that tells so much story while still showing you the credits. Seeing him teaching acting classes and going on auditions says everything about him and his world.
Gerwig: We tried to do that with Tracy.
Baumbach: We’re basically establishing what could have been the first 20 minutes in 21/2 minutes.
Gerwig: We reference all the time the scene when Dustin Hoffman’s character is caught in all of his lies.
Baumbach: We tried to build a movie on so many excuses and lies.
▪ “The King of Comedy” (1983): Martin Scorsese’s devastating media satire serves up Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian who kidnaps a late-night television host (Jerry Lewis) in a misguided quest for fame.
Baumbach: We thought about it because the central character is delusional.
Gerwig: His inability to hide his anxious need was something I thought about with Brooke. One of the things I love most about “The King of Comedy” is when he finally gets on TV, he’s not terrible, but he’s not great.
Baumbach: He’s just an OK stand-up.
Gerwig: There’s something so much better about that than any other ending, because it’s unexpected.
▪ “Lost in America” (1985): Fed up with their lives, a yuppie couple (Julie Hagerty and Albert Brooks, who directs) hit the road in a Winnebago, but she loses their nest egg at a Las Vegas casino.
Baumbach: Albert Brooks’ character is making trouble for himself in a way that’s very relatable. The protagonist is not the victim — he’s asking for it on some level.
Gerwig: He’s not just standing there, innocent.
Baumbach: That’s true of Tracy in our film. “Lost in America” is also a movie that you don’t know where it’s going. I love the fact that he ends up as a crossing guard. We wrote many versions of the second half of “Mistress America” — it could have gone a lot of different ways.
▪ “After Hours” (1985): A milquetoast (Griffin Dunne) loses his cash during a cab ride to a rendezvous with a kooky downtown New Yorker (Rosanna Arquette). He spends a long, surreal night fighting to get back home while being pursued by a posse of hostile eccentrics in Martin Scorsese’s breakneck Kafkaesque comedy.
Gerwig: As soon as the money flies out of the cab, “After Hours” has this kinetic movement. It feels like the movie is running faster than itself. That was something we wanted to have in our film.
Baumbach: Part of the challenge of “After Hours” for Scorsese must’ve been trying to create something that felt totally unexpected but also satisfying on some level. We were conscious of trying to do that.
Gerwig: I’ve always identified with Rosanna Arquette. She’s so beautiful. (Laughs.)
Baumbach: We have the song “Rosanna,” which was written about her by Toto, in “Mistress America,” so she’s in our movie that way.
▪ “Something Wild” (1986): Jonathan Demme’s caper features Jeff Daniels (who later co-starred in Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale”) as an apparently mild-mannered banker who goes on a crime spree with a temptress in a black wig (Melanie Griffith).
Baumbach: We thought about the transformation of Melanie Griffith, where she starts as one kind of character and ends as a very different one.
Gerwig: She has all this vulnerability …
Baumbach: … once she takes off her wig. Tracy seems to be an innocent in our movie, but she has her own desires and ambitions, and that’s true of Jeff’s character, to the point where he becomes violent.
Gerwig: When we thought about these movies, it was a way to access something that wasn’t quite as tethered to reality as we tend to be, separately and together, when we operate. You can look at movies like these and go, “You can make this any way you want — you don’t have to play by any rules to get where you’re going.”