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Marriage Story
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kicking And Screaming"
4 stars

if I were to sit down and make a list of the directors whose name on the credits of a new film is enough to fill me with the kind of scorn and dread usually reserved for trips to the dentist or the musical recitals of other people’s children, I must confess that Noah Baumbach would most likely be very near the top of it even if it wasn’t in alphabetical order. He has been making movies for 25 years now and, to be fair, some of his films have received plenty of critical acclaim, even from observers whose opinions I respect. However, whatever qualities they have found to celebrate in works like “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and his Greta Gerwig-led trilogy of “Greenberg,” “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” have managed to elude me completely. To these eyes, he specializes in films centered around wildly unpleasant and deeply solipsistic narcissists who spend their time making themselves and anyone who happens into their rarefied orbit as miserable as possible. Mind you, I don’t object to films based around obnoxious or unlikable people—my objection is that seems incapable of also presenting them in a manner interesting enough to make me want to sit through their narratives for any other reason outside of professional obligation. To be fair, I did like “De Palma,” the fascinating documentary on the life and work of a slightly more interesting filmmaker that he co-directed with Jake Paltrow, and he did co-write the screenplays to the Wes Anderson films “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” I dunno—maybe, in direct opposition of what has been suggested in the majority of his oeuvre, he simply plays well with others.

Needless to say, the arrival of a new Baumbach joint, “Marriage Story,” did not exactly fill me with the kind of glee that I might demonstrate in the face of a new Roland Emmerich epic. Yes, the film was hailed by many during its time on this fall’s festival circuit and it is filled with actors who presence in a cast usually fills my heart with something closely resembling joy. As a result, it should probably come as no surprise to learn that when I arrived for the screening of the film, it was not with the lightest and happiest of heart. What may come as a surprise—especially if you have read this far—is that the film is not bad at all. Granted, it does not quite live up to the hosannas that it has received in some circles and there are some cringe-worthy moments here and there that momentarily brought that old distaste back. However, those bits are in the minority and the film as a whole, is easily the most amusing, touching and thoughtful narrative film that he has done to date. Okay, it is the only one of his narrative features that I would describe in such a manner but you have to start somewhere.

Despite what is suggested by the title, “Marriage Story” starts off during the final act of the marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). At one point, they were evidently the very epitome of the hip, hot New York couple—he is an acclaimed playwright and the head of his own avant-garde theatre group and she is an actress who first gained notoriety for some dumb hit movie where she took off her top but who chose to relocate to the East Coast to marry him, have their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) and appear in his plays, giving her artistic credibility and him a boost with ticket sales. Now the marriage is all but they are convinced that they can get through the process while staying on amicable terms and without traumatizing Henry or, almost as important, utilizing lawyers that they are convinced will simply muddy things up for them while charging enormous fees for doing so. When Nicole gets an offer to go to LA and shoot a pilot for a TV show, a gig that looks pretty dumb but which offers her the chance at a big paycheck for the first time in a while, there is no drama between the two of them and Charlie doesn’t even object when she wants to bring Henry along to stay with her—since he is working on his latest production, that will work out nicely in his eyes and Henry will be back soon enough.

While working on the show, Nicole talks to some of the other divorcees involved with the production and they convince her that she should at least consider looking into retaining a lawyer. She eventually goes in to meet with Nora (Laura Dern), a divorce attorney who can initially display a sunny and radiant demeanor as only Laura Dern can before demonstrating the kind of steely resolve that only Laura Dern can. Over the course of one long and extraordinary scene, Nora gets Nicole to talk about her relationship with Charlie and as she goes about doing so, you can see her under no obligation to cover for the micro-aggressions and self-absorption that Charlie demonstrated over the course of their marriage and beyond (even suggesting that she could plow some of that TV money back into his theater) and coming to realize that for perhaps the first time in her life, she is truly asserting herself instead of simply looking the other way. From then on, the tone of the divorce shifts as Nicole has Charlie formally served with divorce papers and announces her desire to remain in Los Angeles for her career and have Henry stay with her. Charlie is knocked for a loop—he cannot believe that she has hired a lawyer and wants to stay in LA (he repeatedly insists to everyone that they were a New York family)—and finds himself bouncing back and forth between the coasts in order to remain a part of Henry’s life and, as important, find a divorce lawyer that Nicole did not meet with. When his first choice (Ray Liotta) proves to be too aggressive, he goes for a more genial type (Alan Alda). Things begin to sour between them even more as their case drags and becomes just as acrimonious as they once feared it might become, which is all the more painful because they still do care about each other on some fundamental level.

I should confess that the early scenes of “Marriage Story” did not give me much hope that this was going to be a radically different work from Baumbach—there is a certain glibness during this opening stretch of the sort that is too often found in his work in the place of actual honesty that only that extraordinary scene with Nicole in Nora’s office manages to avoid. From that moment, however, the film seems to be making an even greater wrong turn by making Charlie so meek and passive in his bewilderment in the face of Nicole’s newly aggressive behavior that it seems as if the film is going to be just another helping of the same horseshit that “Kramer vs Kramer” foisted on moviegoers that felt sexist and retrograde 40 years ago. However, it is at this point that Baumbach makes the move that ultimately saves the movie. Previously in the film, we have seen some dubious bits of behavior on Charlie’s part—he backhandedly criticizes the script for Nicole’s pilot by stating that he isn’t the best judge since he never watches television, even though one that he turned on is playing in the background at that point—but because of his easygoing attitude and puppy dog demeanor, we have been willing to cut him some slack. Now Baumbach readjusts his focus on Charlie so that we can more clearly see him in the way that Nicole now does—as someone with a decidedly controlling and self-absorbed nature who will go to great, if quiet, lengths to get his way, no matter how much misery he creates for others in the process. (At one point, he more or less forces Henry to go out with him for a second round of trick-or-treating when all the kid wants to do is sleep.)

In the end, the real battle in the film is not about money or property or custody or any of the other things one associates with a typical divorce narrative. The real fight is between Charlie’s quietly intense sense of personal entitlement—one that he has held for so long and without ever having needed to answer for it that he barely even recognizes it as such anymore—and Nicole’s determination to be the one to call him on it and make him aware of his inability to embrace the viewpoint or opinion of anyone other than him, a trait that might work in an artistic sense but not so much elsewhere. This is occasionally played for laughs—in one of the most inspired sequences, an eternally non-plussed social worker (Mary Hollis Inboden) arrives at his barely furnished apartment to observe him and Henry in a series of events that spiral amusingly out of control—but it is more often handled in a serious manner that eventually leads to a bruising and emotionally devastating confrontation between him and Nicole in which they let all their hurts and anger fly that is terrifying to behold. Throughout the film, Driver and Johansson have delivered some of the best acting of their careers but this scene is a true testament to their abilities—an instant classic destined to be studied, dissected and admired for years to come.

“Marriage Story” is not quite as flawless as some of the advance notices have suggested. Baumbach has a few bad ideas that he has inexplicably allowed to make it through to the final cut. There are two musical numbers towards the very end that seem jarringly out of place even though that is presumably why they were included in the first place and the characters of Nicole’s mom (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merrit Weaver) seem trucked in from a sitcom. I also had a bit of a problem with the appearances of the various lawyers utilized by Nicole and Charlie. This is not a slight on the performances from the actors playing them—Liotta and Alda do some of their best work in years and Dern’s turn is so galvanizing that I would like to see an entire film devoted solely to her character—but when their famous faces turn up, they inevitably tend to steal some of the focus from the ostensible main characters that the film then needs a few minutes to regain. (One of the reasons that the scene with the social worker is so effective is that she is played by a less-well-known person and that allows us to concentrate on the scene as a whole and not just another star turn.) For the most part, however, “Marriage Story” gets things just right and while I may never quite find my way to regard Noah Baumbach as a great filmmaker, I have to admit that he has come surprisingly close to that mark this time around.

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originally posted: 11/15/19 06:53:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/11/20 Denise Liked the film a lot, thought the social worker was hilarious. 4 stars
12/21/19 BERNARD So Sad. See this movie before getting married. 5 stars
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