Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Marriage Story (2019): A Review (Review #1344)


After a brief theatrical run to qualify for awards consideration, Marriage Story slipped into the safe confines of Netflix, though with news that it would have a Criterion release later in 2020. Well-acted, with some excellent writing, I still could not shake the idea that Marriage Story was essentially Kramer vs. Kramer: The Next Generation.

Marriage Story is a misnomer, as the film really is about the divorce of actress Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and her director husband Charlie (Adam Driver). Nicole had earned great success in a breakout performance in the teen sex comedy All Over the Girl, where she famously lifted her top & exposed her breasts.

At this point I ask how this particular moment could, in any universe, be considered some kind of generational iconic moment but there it is.

Having worked in Charlie's avant-garde theater for about ten years, and with a child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), the Barber marriage has irretrievably broken down. She goes to Los Angeles to film a television pilot, and while both acknowledge their marriage is ending they both had agreed to use mediators and not lawyers in their divorce.

Image result for marriage storyLittle does Charlie know that Nicole is persuaded to hire Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), powerhouse divorce lawyer in a Gloria Allred manner (at least Nora reminded me of Allred). Charlie, still slightly oblivious or at least inattentive, with a firm belief they are a "New York" family versus a "California" family, bungles his own responses. He wavers between equally cutthroat lawyer Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) and genial but weak Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), mainly for financial reasons.

Things keep getting harder for Charlie, as he's essentially being bled dry financially to keep any kind of custody, and not even a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship helps. Nicole, for her part, keeps integrating Henry more and more to her side of the family to where Henry is slowly becoming a stranger to his father. Things as trivial as trick-or-treating turn into battles over costumes and times.

Charlie finally decides to fire Bert, hire Jay and fight, both lawyers dragging their opposing sides through the mud by bringing up adultery and potential alcoholism. Charlie and Nicole try to be civil but end up having a massive battle of their own.

Eventually, after all the Sturm und Drang they put both Henry and each other through, both finally divorce and have terms they can live with. A year later, Charlie accepts a residency in Los Angeles to be closer to Henry while Nicole received an Emmy nomination for directing an episode of her television series. As Henry struggles to read the letter where Nicole praises the positives of her now ex-husband, both are moved and find a semblance of peace. 

Image result for marriage story
Perhaps the film was titled Marriage Story because the title Divorce His, Divorce Hers had already been used for a Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor miniseries. To my own surprise, Marriage Story is my first experience with the oeuvre of writer/director Noah Baumbach. I never even saw Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which he co-wrote. Baumbach mined his own life in Marriage Story, a kind of exorcising, idealizing, perhaps even romanticizing of Baumbach's own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Here is a directorial genius and the ingenue who starred in an iconic teen comedy (substitute Fast Times at Ridgemont High for All Over the Girl, though to be fair I've never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High). The director is a New Yorker (like Baumbach), and the couple have one son (like Baumbach and Leigh). I do not know if more people have commented on the autobiographical nature of Marriage Story, but I cannot imagine that Baumbach isn't if not flat-out recreating his divorce experience at least drawing from it.

Try as I might I could not see how there weren't "villains" in Marriage Story. Yes, Nicole and even Charlie had faults, but I found myself mostly siding with the latter. His sacrifices were greater, as were his incapability to understand the minefields he was going through and his struggle to "play dirty".  I think it's next to impossible to not gravitate towards Charlie during the Halloween sequence.

Image result for marriage storyCharlie had his costumer make a special costume for Henry only to have his son reject it in favor of what his cousins wore, with Nicole barely hiding her disinterest in the whole matter. Her obstinacy, almost dismissive manner about where Charlie, who does not know the Los Angeles metroplex as she does, could go to my mind does not endear her to me.

Then there's Nora. Laura Dern has received much praise for her performance, but to me, it veered close to cartoonish, particularly the much-heralded "Mother" speech. Nora's views on fathers to my mind comes across as hateful, angry, hard.

And for the record, my own father left when I was a baby and made it clear he wanted nothing to do with me, so I can't be accused of not being sympathetic to one-parent households with women as the heads of family.

Dern's whole performance seemed almost too self-aware, but many people love it. I didn't, but there it is.

I did, however, love Johansson and Driver as Nicole and Charlie. They had wonderful, deep moments, such as Nicole's monologue about how she saw her married life or Charlie's quiet rage whenever he tries to bond with Henry.

As a side note, this Henry reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer's Billy in that both were rather horrible children whom I grew to dislike. I'm a child of divorce, and I've known a few children of divorce. I don't remember myself or any of them being this whiny, mopey or downright obnoxious. It's almost a trope by now.

To be fair, despite being more with Charlie than with Nicole, I did find the lot of them rather horrible people. The film felt so long I was desperate for this ride into divorce hell to end. Charlie's bravest act is to sing Sondheim (and for the record, while I didn't know the song, Being Alive from Company, I recognized Sondheim's style of essentially 'talking to a melody'). As a side note, Driver isn't bad as a singer.

Marriage Story is elevated by the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, but part of me thinks more of their parents' marriage story, better known as Kramer vs. Kramer. Finally, for all the constant shout-outs to "the spaces" and ability to walk in Los Angeles vs. New York City, we all know that "nobody walks in L.A.".


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