Thursday, December 19, 2019

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)

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Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story starts positively: Charlie (Adam Driver) and then Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reading offscreen what they like about each other while Baumbach runs a series of images as illustrative commentary. Then the kicker--this is the start of a mediator session where the two are in the process of divorce, and Nicole refuses to read to Charles what she's so movingly and eloquently written. The end of the relationship, not its affirmation.  

It's a painful process, apparently biographical (Baumbach based details on his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) and not altogether grim--the scene where a court-appointed evaluator visits Charlie having dinner with his son Henry (Azhy Robertson) is a study in slow-fuse disaster; Wallace Shawn is a welcome presence as the endlessly anecdotal Frank (apparently he won a Tony at 27 and met Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Marlene Dietrich--Shawn may be consciousness-streaming biographical details here); Julie Hagerty as Nicole's mother Sandra is hilariously subversive (for one thing she likes Charlie more than she's supposed to). 

The comedy is sharpish the drama not a little self-indulgent. Nicole has a monologue early in the film where she explains why she fell in love then eventually left her husband that Baumbach shoots first in a series of brief shots then (when the details are being agonizingly yanked out of her) in long take. It's an intricately written scene and you have to give Johansson props for pulling it off; the moment provides one with an image memory of what Nicole is all about, because eventually the film shades into an extended point-of-view narrative focused on Charlie--what Baumbach I suppose intended all along. 

Women leaving their husbands is at least as old as Ibsen's A Doll's House and movies have dealt with troubled marriages as far back as Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (which this film alludes to once or twice) and before that Dreyer's Master of the House--drama after all finds more fertile ground amongst unhappy people. Most folks thinking of divorce told from the man's point of view cite Kramer vs. Kramer (after all it won that precious goldplated doorstop) but filmmakers (mostly male) have been telling the story at least since Truffaut's Love on the Run.  

So--this is Charlie's story more than Nicole's. Charlie is the director after all, Nicole a mere actress; Charlie has a vision, Nicole just wants a version of herself she can recognize apart from her husband; Charlie is a self-made New Yorker, Nicole left a privileged life and family in LA (to which she eventually returns). At a certain point you want to ask: wouldn't it be interesting--perhaps more challenging--if Baumbach had tried to tell Nicole's story instead? 

Not impossible--Bergman was reportedly a womanizer and difficult husband (to put it mildly) but you would never guess that from the films--the women there are realized with preternatural sensitivity, so much so you wonder: maybe Bergman being a bastard is part and parcel of his penetrating insight into the opposite sex? Or is he possessed of powers of empathy independent of his conduct in real life--maybe beyond his powers to apply to his own life?

I don't know; I can only ask. One thing Baumbach does bring to the party is a more nuanced view of divorce lawyers--not the men, though Alan Alda's legal mensch Bert Spitz and Ray Liotta's courtroom attack dog Jay Marotta are vividly sketched cartoons. Laura Dern's Nora however is I submit the more interesting creation: a charmer with mind like steel trap, with a distinct and comically feminist point of view (at one point she delivers a diatribe ending with both barrels unloaded at the Virgin Mary) who functions as either villainess or heroine--can't quite make up your mind which. She champions Nicole, sometimes above and beyond what Nicole wants; she (like Alda's Spitz) has a human side to her, which she reveals or conceals as circumstances warrant.

Lemme just put the film aside and say while the cast as a whole delivers Dern in recent years has been knocking one after another out of the park; aside from this ambiguously shaded legal predator she burned a brief vivid hole on the big screen in The Last Jedi (which I otherwise didn't like)Arguably her best work has been with David Lynch--a starmaking role in the little-seen Inland Empire, a spectacular entrance as the never-seen Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return. The woman is funny and fearless both in her career and artistic choices, an intimidating combination.  

I've heard comparisons with Kramer vs. Kramer, for obvious reasons; also Annie Hall, for the East Coast West Coast rivalry (West comes off ostensibly better, though East retains a cultural self-righteousness that--in my book anyway--is at least partly earned). No one seems to remember Alan Parker and Bo Goldman's Shoot the Moon. Parker isn't known for restraint--if you've seen Midnight Express, The Wall and Mississippi Burning you know what I mean--but he's miraculously low key here, his admittedly distinctive filmmaking talent working away in the background to lend the understated drama a pleasing visual hum. Goldman's script was based on experiences with dysfunctional couples, and it's perfectly balanced between coolly ironic distance and devastating intimacy. And while Johansson acquits herself well and Adam Driver is his usual excellent self no they are not Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Maybe the only thing missing that Baumbach nailed are the divorce lawyers--I'll give him that much credit.  

First published in Businessworld 12.9.19

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