“You’re a Funny Girl”: Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, and Dangerous Women

At a recent double-feature at the IFC Center, Greta Gerwig, who was there to present her new film Mistress America, mentioned the idea of the “dangerous woman” in cinema as one of the inspirations for the script, co-written with director Noah Baumbach. I was intrigued, not least because the two ’80s films she highlighted, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (which she screened alongside Mistress America) and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, happen to be personal favorites of mine – though I’d never thought to put them together in that way. In the weeks following I kept turning the phrase over in my mind, trying to think of modern examples of the trope outside the action and horror genres and coming up blank. Was the dangerous woman a relic of its time? Or has our idea of a feminine threat shifted to something a little less overt but more idiosyncratic? In these third wave, MRA-plagued days, it seems worth dissecting.

Both Something Wild and After Hours start similarly: a young yuppie type (Jeff Daniels in the former, Griffin Dunne in the latter) is approached by a beautiful woman (Melanie Griffith in the former, Rosanna Arquette in the latter) whose motives aren’t quite clear. They’re spontaneous and sexually adventurous while giving off more than a whiff of emotional instability. In Wild Griffith coerces/kidnaps Daniels for a road trip, stopping by a Jersey motel for some afternoon delight before bringing him home to meet her mother and attend her high school reunion. The romance in Hours is stranger and shorter-lived: after meeting Arquette at a coffee shop earlier in the evening, Dunne takes an impromptu trip down to her Soho loft for what he hopes will be an easy score. Things go off the rails for both ostensible heroes, because these women are dangerous in the most basic sense. They offer excitement, even escape, but they can also get you killed: Griffith is hiding a jailbird ex-husband with a short temper, while Arquette exits her film early, overdosing while an oblivious Dunne is trying to get out of her apartment.

From these points, the films diverge: Daniels becomes a willing participant in the craziness he’s tangled up in, attempting to rescue Griffith from the abusive man who wants their old life back at any cost, while Dunne goes on an increasingly nightmarish journey through the city streets, encountering other dangerous women, and a few men, as he tries to get safely back uptown. Watching both films recently I was struck by how truly unpredictable they are, even after having seen them multiple times. It may partly be that in this executive micromanaging and franchising, mainstream filmmakers aren’t as willing or able to take the sort of risks with audience expectations that Wild and Hours do. The tone of Wild for instance, doesn’t just add hints and notes, but fully shifts from romantic comedy to thriller with a switch of the lights the instant Ray Liotta, playing Griffith’s ex, appears onscreen. And Hours, with its down-the-rabbit-hole structure, piles absurdity on absurdity, unfolding in a lethal darkness that you fear might never end.

Something Wild
After Hours

All great films are products of their time, and these two more than others. Borne from the same era when the milk of Reagan’s morning in America was beginning to curdle, Wild and Hours are set in a New York City that was both alluring and still genuinely threatening. While Wild quickly moves further south, Griffith represents a very particular type of city dweller hiding out from a bad past in a small town. In Hours, Dunne imbues his unassuming office drone with enough entitled edge to keep the film’s manic satire grounded in a recognizable, if not always likeable, character. Both films are quintessentially ’80s, riffing on the weirdness that lies just beneath cultivated surfaces.

Mistress America wears the influence of these works on its sleeve though it differs in a crucial way, retaining their screwball sensibilities while lacking the essential danger. There are obvious reasons for this: New York in the 2010s is an entirely shinier and safer beast and Baumbach’s film is more gentle in its skewering of the city’s young inhabitants. One of these inhabitants is a new transplant, a lonely college freshman (Lola Kirke) who reaches out to her older future sibling-in-law (Gerwig) and is quickly ushered into her dazzling makeshift world. Though the second half shifts to a noises-off farce with a larger cast the core of the story is the friendship between these two women.

The danger of Gerwig’s character is less physical than developmental, seducing Kirke’s precocious teenager with the promise of a carefree creative lifestyle she can’t quite deliver on. Here, interestingly, the naïve admirer is as much a threat to the “dangerous woman” as she is to her: Kirke, unbeknownst to Gerwig, begins incorporating her actions and dialogue into a short story she’s writing to impress an exclusive literary society at school. While nobody’s life is ever in peril, Kirke’s scavenging of Gerwig’s history represents a more existential, insidious threat to her being, an invasion of her privacy that simultaneously exposes her failings to the friends that read Kirke’s work.

America, in the end, is a growing-up tale, in a way that feels authentic to our times. While both Griffith and Arquette are self-aware agents of chaos for the men they ensnare, Gerwig embodies a more modern idea of menace as a woman ignorant of (or actively ignoring) the effect she has on others, undomesticated but not exactly scary. In an age of selfies and smart phones and Great Recessions, she’s a potent (and amusing) figure, too wrapped up in the dramas of her own life to recognize the path of destruction behind her as her own. Watching it right after Something Wild at IFC, though, I couldn’t help wondering what Mistress America might look like with some weapons deployed as rapid-fire as its words.

Wild and Hours are ’80s artifacts in some ways, yet they were also ahead of their time, satirizing and undermining the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope before it even existed. The two films came out during a tumultuous period that saw women entering the workplace in a new way (Griffith herself would star in Working Girl, one of the defining pieces of pop culture about this very subject, a couple years later) and both play on masculine fears about this sea change. Class, as it does in many of their ’40s screwball forebears, plays a major, if unspoken, part in the initial attraction between the couples. If Griffith or Arquette have jobs, they’re most certainly unconventional, offering Daniels and Dunne an alternative to the wife and kids at home or the punishing office environment, if only for a night. Their danger, before it explodes in actual violence, is merely a working man’s fantasy of bohemianism.

In the years since, the feminist movement has come back in a big way with buzzwords like “Bechdel Test” and “rape culture” entering the public consciousness, asking people to question the content of their consumption, and receiving much blowback in the process. The romance in Mistress America is not sexual (not unlike Gerwig and Baumbach’s similarly kissing-free Frances Ha), and indeed the film is refreshing for having very little interest in what men think at all. This might account for some of its softness: the danger of flirting with empty bohemianism is here, but without ever boiling over in passion or blood spillage. Self-absorption is ultimately more damaging to oneself than others, and it’s not an issue that plagues only women. Yet as fights for equal pay and against objectification still rage, there’s an opening for a funny film about an angrier, more explicitly dangerous woman to be filled. Such a movie would skewer the anxieties of modern masculinity, which too often manifest as threats of violence against outspoken women, as mercilessly as Wild and Hours did; it would be a different movie, certainly, than the one Gerwig and Baumbach set out to make. But it’s one I think we need just as much.