Noah Baumbach movies have always felt like filmed versions of HuffPost Life & Style articles: ’35 Funny Tweets About Having a Roommate’; ‘The 1 Thing Unfaithful People Have in Common’; ‘So THAT’S the Difference Between Orange and White Cheddar Cheese’. We get a chuckle, learn something we’ll forget a second later, and nod our heads to things we already know are true but for some reason like to have written out for us.
What’s made Baumbach’s scripts worth bothering to shoot is his love of actors, a commendable thing considering this Marvel Universe in which we live. Miming fisticuffs with an alien against a green-screen is nothing compared to reeling off a 5-minute monologue on some basic slice-of-life moment and making it riveting, and in Marriage Story, Baumbach’s got his most riveting pair yet in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
ScarJo is an actress named Nicole who wants a divorce from Adam’s Charlie. We assume it’s because he makes her act in his terrible BAM-y stage plays, where she has to climb all over the other actors while her huge projected mug yells at the audience. But since this kind of theater isn’t legally recognized as abuse (yet), Nicole has to go a different route.
Being woke Brooklynite parents, they think they can keep their split ‘gentle’. But then Nicole hires Laura Dern as her lawyer. ScarJo, did you not watch Big Little Lies? Renata Klein does not do gentle. So then Charlie dumps kindly old Alan Alda for a Mafioso lawyer played by who else but Ray Liotta, fresh off his Chantix infomercials and looking like he should have kept smoking.
Proceedings of course get ugly (‘The 5 Things Every Couple Who Hate Each Other Should Know’), in both subtle and overt ways, and Johansson actresses like never before. But let’s discuss Adam Driver.
Does anyone ever stop and think, like I do, what a dismal future American film acting will have once the likes of DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman and Streep retire? And that Adam Driver is the extremely rare actor of his generation with the shoulders to carry a mantle that big? From the moment he walked out in Girls and made everyone and everything else in the show feel like a Twitter exchange to his single-handedly turning the Star Wars franchise into the grand opera it always wanted to be, this guy has shown an uncanny ability to slap material around until it’s his bitch. Though it purports to present things with an even hand, Marriage Story continually corners Charlie into the villain role (a rousing, biting lecture by Dern during the custody battle makes this obvious), yet Driver refuses to stay in that corner, sneaking out when he can and bursting out when he must.
Like kids watching parents fight, the movie tries to distract us with comedy, but there’s no getting around that Marriage Story is the opposite of escapist fare. Johansson and Driver’s portrayal of a couple trying and failing to keep their anger and love from nuclear melt-down is so good that it leaves anyone who can relate to the situation a bit traumatized. I saw more than a few dazed faces leaving my theater, and no doubt heading to the nearest bar.
Baumbach knows he’s got something bigger this time than his previous films, that this one will play beyond the Upper West Side, that Oscar may finally find a Noah Baumbach film sexy enough for recognition. But just in case, he hedges his bet by making the crux of the couple’s animosity a stand-off between New York’s artistic snobbery (Charlie, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant) and LA’s ‘broader’ creative sensibilities (Nicole, who made her name by exposing her boobs in a teen flick). This and the use of the son to wring emotion during crucial moments is a little convenient, but no more so than classics like Kramer vs Kramer.
Baumbach devotees will of course love this, though they may secretly wish there was a little more Frances Ha-ha and a little less yelling. But for those who weren’t ever blown away by his films, he’s found excellent actors to convert us.
Marriage Story opens nationally on November 6.
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