Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 04, 2019 2:53 pm 
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A dramedy for all seasons

This is not just a shift from looking at divorce from the kids' to the parents' point of view, but a dramatic example of how far Baumbach has come as a writer-director since fourteen years ago when his early feature The Squid and the Whale ,  also about divorce, debuted at the New York Film Festival.  He seems so much more fluent, powerful, and at ease  here.  Squid was witty, snide, subtle, keenly observed. It also seemed a bit snobbish and parochial. It was content with being minor.  It was also very "East Coast."  Though the battle between the coasts is dramatized here, with the husband, Charlie (Adam Driver) struggling throughout to have his disintegrating nuclear family defined as New York-based, not only is this a battle that he is continually losing, but most of the movie action actually takes place in L.A.  

Beyond that, this is a warmly accessible and insanely enjoyable as any American film this year.  Quite possibly Baumbach's best work, certainly in some sense the stars', Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver's best.  There is a double aria knockdown verbal yell-fest that's the mother of all marriage squabbles, also a stunning combined tour de force for  Driver-Johannson, the director and the crew. The two and a quarter hours go by swiftly.  Never before has Baumbach better melded humor and emotion. It's particularly exciting, not to say thrilling, to encounter a film that's at once so accessible and so well-made and specific.  Hopefully this time Baumbach can be enjoyed by his widest audience yet, and this can be appreciated by many as one of the best movies of the year. It's the director's tenth feature, and it's a ten out of ten.

The structure is simple and forceful. It's bookended by two statements where Charlie, then Nicole (Johansson), describe what they like and admire about each other - an activity done at the directive of a mediation coach. Charlie is a successful New York theater director, Nicole is an actress.  They are breaking up. Things are going to get heated, painful, maybe hostile.  This list-making is to ground them in a sense of the good things, the reasons they got together in the first place. The film returns to these lists at the end in a neat and touching way. Throughout, neatness may overwhelm Baumbach's usual subtlety, but there is plenty of wit, and raw emotion trumps sentimentality - the rawness often reflected in the intimacy, sometimes calculated roughness, of the visual style, enhanced by shooting on 35mm.

Any sense of the generic is avoided by the specific focus on the bicoastal issue and the custody and divorce law questions tied to it, while the comedy and the pain are jointly grounded  in the work, equally hilarious and cruel, of the divorce lawyers Nicole and Charlie eventually engage.  When they're splitting (but still friendly) Nicole goes to Los Angeles to star in a TV series and takes their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

The balance of sympathy seems to lean toward the male side here.  Nicole's TV series remains sketchy.  Charlie's theater group comes more to life, with Wallace Shawn highlighting colorful scenes. A play Charlie has developed, a version of  Euripides' Electra, is about to go on Broadway. Charlie has to go back and forth to California. During this time he gets a MacaAthur "genius" award totaling  $625,000 over five years in quarterly installments.

The divorce threatens to be disastrous for Charlie and his company.  He may throw a lot  of the grant money to the divorce lawyers, which he wants to use to pay credit card debt and expenses of the company. All the trips to California - and setting up additional residence there - he blames for  the failure of the Broadway Electra.

The original plan was for just the two of them, Charlie and Nicole, to sit down and work things out.  But Nicole's ditsy former actress mother (Julie Hagerty) talks her into seeing an ace divorce lawyer, Nora (a lean, mean Laura Dern).  This means Charlie has to get one and he winds up with the very human but slightly over-the-hill Bert (Alan Alda), because he thinks the high powered lawyer he sees at first (a splendid Ray Liotta) is too expensive and too aggressive.  

Public and private, monetary and emotional:  the sparring of the lawyers, finally seen in the dreaded divorce court, is a simultaneously  hilarious and frightening objective correlative of the squabbling of the couple whose love has turned to hostility or indifference.  If the hotshot lawyers miraculously don't finally quite prevail, we see how destructive the mechanism they represent can be.

There is raw emotion and raw language here, but it's wonderful how often Marriage Story evokes some updated version of a screwball comedy.  While there's an illusion to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage that implies Charlie's company may have put on some version of that, this movie plainly isn't directly about the agonizing emotional breakdown of a relationship - except in the moments when it is.  It shows the emotional pain more subtly, perhaps more touchingly, mostly by indirection, or by proxy.

 This is specifically about American divorce.  The title might have been "Divorce Story"; it might even better have been simply "Custody."  Because a lot of the focus is on whether the family is defined as California- or New York-based, and what visitation rights Charlie gets with Henry. The Squid and the Whale focuses on teenage boys beginning to see through their pretentious intellectual father played by Jeff Daniels.  Here sympathy is with the father.  But the spotlight is often on little Henry, who quickly starts liking his California school and classmates, which were supposed (Charlie thought anyway) to be temporary.  But while Henry leans toward the new location, it's balanced: he still loves his dad too.

In fact balance describes Marriage Story throughout and is what's so remarkable about it.  Baumbach isn't always the most economical of writers.   There are details of Henry, or of Nicole's family, that seem unnecessary.  But what stands out is how painful, real emotion and hilarious satire coexist in the writing - and the always enjoyable and honest acting.  This  seems unusual, till you realize it's the mark of classic comedy.  It's almost Shakespearean.  Can one bestow a higher complement than that? And there are even musical elements, with both principals performing from Sondheim's Company.  It's a dramedy for all seasons.

Marriage Story, 136 mins., debuted at Venice 29 Aug. 2019, featured in 8 or 10 other festivals including Telluride and Toronto; showing as the Centerpiece Film at the NYFF, Fri., Oct. 4, 2019.  Theatrical release Nov. 6, 2019, followed by digital streaming by Netflix Dec. 6. Metascore currently  95%.

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