Marriage Story (2019) Dec 10, 2019 16:18:09 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 10, 2019 16:18:09 GMT -5
Marriage Story (2019)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are a couple headed for divorce in Marriage Story.
There are few writers/directors that can effectively use monologues and extended scenes of dialog as the primary action in their films and be wickedly successful. Aaron Sorkin has made a career in both television and film with such projects as The Newsroom and Steve Jobs. Although not a director, playwright Tracy Letts' works Bug and Killer Joe have been adapted to films with terrific results. Noah Baumbach is another name you can put on that list. His prowess of finding the heart and soul of his characters amidst scenes that show a slice-of-life that appears picturesque on the surface yet houses many nagging difficulties for them is what keeps each new film compelling.
It worked in The Squid and the Whale, it soared in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and it continues to serve Baumbach well in Marriage Story, a film showing one couple's divorce proceedings in explicit detail. Released to Netflix, it doesn't make for a cozy evening viewing given its subject matter, but not everything on the streaming service, after all, is ripe for a cuddly "Netflix and Chill" experience punctuated by extended cell-phone breaks. Despite occasional moments of humor cutting through the gloom of the overarching breakup, this is very much a film you watch, and in turn, feel, as Baumbach chronicles a kind of pain and helplessness you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
Marriage Story opens rather warmly, with both Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) reading a piece they wrote for their relationship mediator. The assignment was to write about the details and personality traits you like in your partner. Nicole tells us how Charlie is a creative mind, overly competitive, and eats every meal like it might be his last. Charlie tells us how Nicole loves their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), can't close a cabinet door to save her life, and listens intently, sometimes too intently when it comes to mere acquaintances. These details set the tone for the depth of specificity in which Baumbach examines their marriage, which is headed for an ugly divorce.
During their latest separation, Nicole works on a TV pilot in Los Angeles, living with Henry, her mother, and her sister, meanwhile Charlie resides in New York running a theater and readying a Broadway play. Charlie's latest sabbatical to L.A. to see his wife and child is when he's ultimately served the divorce papers, as Nicole has already nabbed a successful attorney named Nora (Laura Dern). Charlie scrambles to find a lawyer, initially settling for a soft-spoken gentleman who has been married four times (Alan Alda), but soon realizes Nicole's goal is to make her move with Henry to L.A. permanent. This creates a contentious rift between the two, as Charlie must make the arduous, bi-coastal flight back and forth to meet with attorneys on top of trying to get his shows off the ground.
One of the many fascinating subtleties that exists in Marriage Story is its treatment of these very different locales. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite, The Meyerowitz Stories) makes note of the copious amounts of "space" in L.A., something that comes up as a frequent talking point in legal discussions in an effort to get Charlie to move west. Ryan makes note of the couple's congested Brooklyn apartment in contrast to the swanky, spacious living conditions of Nicole's mother's (Julie Hagerty) California home. The worlds of commodious and cramped collide late in the third act during a climactic argument between Charlie and Nicole that has their words echoing in the undecorated digs of Charlie's temporary L.A. apartment. Once again, it's the details that define this picture.
Baumbach doesn't attempt to make Marriage Story a commentary on all divorces. They're not all equal, and trying to make a sweeping statement about divorce in general is a foolish thing to do. He simply tries to nail the specifics of Charlie and Nicole's fractured marriage. I felt a wave of sadness wash over me the longer the film went on; chalk that up to Baumbach's exceptional work at keeping us locked into this couple and not gunning for a broader theme.
Because of how hyperfocused he is on this couple, we get to see two great actors thrive on screen. Johansson paints a precise picture of a career-woman with lofty goals who does everything to the best of her abilities but struggles with the small facets that keep relationships from being plagued by those petty "small arguments" (i.e. not closing cabinets or inexplicably brewing but not drinking several cups of tea). Driver, one of the finest actors working today, does wonders with his role as an even-keel man desperately trying to handle enough projects in his life — from his marriage to his Broadway play — that his emotions bottleneck inside of him until they eventually explode in a fit of rage and subsequent sobbing.
Also worthy of considerable praise, and maybe even some nominations in key categories, is Laura Dern, in a grounded, empathetic performance that shows how every film she's in could ultimately use a little more of her. She has a way with delivery that turns would-be talky, rambling monologues into contemplative speeches. She works with Baumbach's script incredibly well, and she's an emotional anchor of the film insofar that she's the arbitrator in Nicole's life she's always needed. Nothing suggests Charlie nor Nicole have close friends outside of their family. Dern's chemistry with Johansson is so significant to the film because it feels like, for the first time in a long time, Nicole has found someone who will go to bat for her without any snide remarks or passive-aggressive guilt-trips — something she's come to expect from her mother. You get the feeling Nicole will come to realize Nora's impact on her life in years to come.
Baumbach's most difficult challenge is ostensibly painting both Charlie and Nicole as sympathetic individuals, yet he effectively does it. If you're like me, you'll find yourself wafting back and forth, inadvertently choosing one person's side over the other in a given scene, only to have the perspective of the film shift, and consequently, yours as well. The goal isn't necessarily to sympathize with one party over another. The beauty of Baumbach's focus is that both of them have legitimate reasons to be unhappy and want to move on from one another. It's okay to shake your head as you watch Charlie's career in New York crumble as he's dealing with this crisis in Los Angeles, while understanding Nicole's struggle to be everything to a man who seems to put work first when faced with potential unrest within their marriage.
Several scenes will go on to be remembered and replayed due to how succinct and accurate they are. Much has already been made about the big argument between the couple that gets more and more intense as quick-cuts between the two and closeups entrap us in the dispute. One monologue that might be a sleeper, as it comes late in the film, is from Nora, who tells Nicole that society can accept the idea of the imperfect dad but not an imperfect mother. "The idea of a 'good father' was only invented, like, 30 years ago," she tells Nicole in her office. She then references that the Virgin Mary is the epitome of the perfect mother who supports her child and then holds him in her arms when he succumbs to his fate. Meanwhile, the father (God) was nowhere to be found. "He didn't even do the f***ing," she humorously adds. Nora drives home the point that the intangibles we've come to accept for men, occasionally being selfish, aloof, and ultimately absent in some cases, we cannot at all accept for mothers. And she's right like a ninety degree angle.
From the ways it shows how divorce attorneys can posit a once loving couple looking to amicably split into mortal enemies to depicting how those mounting frustrations reach critical mass and cause people to erupt, Marriage Story is a sad and sadly accurate film. However, there are many moments of light-hearted cuteness or visual symbolism (one instant shows Charlie and Nicole hauling a long table into their home and are staring at one another in the eyes until the table they're carrying is pushed forward and cuts off their line of sight). Some of these are overly cute, but they provide scenes that allow us, and the characters, to breathe and take in something light for a change. It's yet another testament to the detail-conscious work of Baumbach, who knocks another one out of the park.
NOTE: My review of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), also streaming on Netflix: stevethemovieman.proboards.com/thread/5800/meyerowitz-stories-new-selected?page=1
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Azhy Robertson, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever. Directed by: Noah Baumbach.