Movie Review ~ Marriage Story

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

Movie Review ~ Mistress America

mistress_america

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister.

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I think it’s only fair to say that I went into Mistress America prepared to hate it.  Like, really hate it.  The preview alone made my eyes want to roll right out of their sockets and hide in a dark corner. How could I possibly go for a movie featuring a director/actress combo that so angered me in the past?  Could I get over my past feelings and my preconceived notions and take Mistress America for what it was and nothing more? It was sure to be a test of my mettle and I’m happy to report that I showed some serious moxie and came out on the other end with a cap on the poison pen I had prepped.

In 2012, director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig teamed up for Frances Ha, their black and white NYC fable following a spirited woman figuring out her place in the world.  Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work (she also wrote it along with Baumbach) and the film achieved some major indie cred for its two collaborators. Lots of people loved it and I…didn’t.  It was a mish mash of pish posh scenes presented more than performed and so rough that it felt like the motto on set was “One take only…no second chances!”.  The result was, for me, a tiresome 86 minutes.

So you can understand why the first trailer for Mistress America, touting the same collaborators working together again, had me fearing the worst.  And while Gerwig still grates on my nerves and speaks the majority of her lines as if she was reading the ingredients on a tuna can, overall the film is a pleasant gem of a picture that has snappy (if ever so highfalutin) dialogue and nicely tuned performances.

Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) is a freshman at Barnard College struggling to adjust to the college experience and living in The Big Apple.  Her mother is about to remarry and, upon hearing that her daughter is stressed, suggests she look up her soon to be stepsister that also lives in NYC.  Brooke (Gerwig) is a fast-talking, big-dreaming social butterfly that has a lot of ideas but no realistic plans on how to achieve her goals.  The two hit it off quickly, with Tracy looking up to her big (step)sister with admiration and using her as inspiration for a short story she’s hoping to submit to a snobby writing society at Barnard.  A road trip for Tracy and Brooke (with two college acquaintances tagging along) to Greenwich, NY proves to be their Waterloo as both women confront certain realities involving their future.

What I found myself enjoying about Mistress America was the rhythm that Baumbach and Gerwig provide for this tale.  There are moments of casual, laid-back dialogue punctuated by rapid-fire exchanges (expertly edited by Jennifer Lame) that can leave the viewer (and the actor) slightly breathless.  A conversation between Brooke and a high school classmate starts small but builds to a comically unexpected climax, as does a late in the game argument between Tracy and a variety of naysayers who call her out on her writing ethics.

Kirke makes for an interesting central figure, not quite deep enough at the beginning but perhaps a bit too knowing by journey’s end.  She is, after all, not yet 20 and I find it hard to believe that a month or two worth of life experiences could influence her so completely.  As mentioned before, Gerwig never met a line she couldn’t go halfway with but you can’t say that her character is one dimensional or without nuance…her best work actually comes when she’s not speaking at all but listening and taking in.  Special mention should also go to Heather Lind are Mamie-Claire, Brooke’s rival for popularity and love.  Lind’s character manages to be both villain and hero of the film without it seeming out of place.

This is probably the first Noah Baumbach movie I’d willingly watch again.  At 84 minutes it flies by and there’s enough comedy goings-on to warrant another look to catch what you may have missed the first time.  Gerwig continues to grow on me and if the two keep making movies as self-assured and entertaining as Mistress America, I’m willing to leave my poison pen at home in the future.

Down From the Shelf ~ Frances Ha

frances_ha_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer, Michael Esper, Charlotte d’Amboise, Michael Zegen, Patrick Heusinger

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I love a good indie film like every other nerdy movie fan but there’s a point when you have to draw a line in the sand and separate the good indies from the bad indies and not apologize for your feelings.

Frances Ha is one of those preciously darling films that critics fawned over and film aficionados loved to analyze over their fat free mocha lattes while combing their tiny moustaches…and I find myself wanting to call bullshit on all of them.  For Frances Ha is nothing new, nothing special, and nothing memorable when all is said and done.  It’s actually a very frustrating experience because it’s so mundane and ordinary that I started wondering if all the reviews telling me I had to see this weren’t part of some elaborate scheme to keep me occupied for 86 minutes while thieves bought Kit Kat bars in bulk with my stolen credit card.

Being fair to the film means pointing out that the reason I kept watching it was for the dynamic lead performance of co-writer Greta Gerwig who has become the Parker Posey of her generation after starring in several acclaimed indie features (we’ll just forget that she c0-starred in the Arthur remake, a certified bomb before retreating back to indie village).  It’s Gerwig that kept me from giving up on the film (and her character) and its why the movie winds up with a score higher than it probably deserves.

Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach, Gerwig collaborates with him on the script that sees the titular character bounce from one apartment to another as she struggles to make ends meet in her quest to become a reasonably famous modern dancer/choreographer.  She seems to be on some path…just not the right one or the one of her choosing so she’s constantly rebelling against it.  I find these movies (like the similarly themed Inside Llewyn Davis) wearisome at times because we can all see that the only thing standing in the way of these characters is their own ego and all they need to do is acquiesce to where they are headed and we can all get on with our lives.

But noooo…we need nearly 90 minutes of crisp black and white photography and a host of episodic encounters with the people Frances meets to finally arrive at that destination only to find that the resolution is better than we (or Frances) could have ever imagined.

This being a very low budget film, scenes were shot on the fly, which seems to support my theory that the mantra on the set was ‘absolutely no 2nd takes whatsoever’.  Most of the actors involved can work within that limitation…save for Mickey Sumner as Frances’ best friend.  I’m not sure what Sumner had on Gerwig/Baumbach to get them to cast her in such a pivotal role but she’s completely out of her league…which becomes painfully obvious with each tortuous scene she’s involved with.  Reading her lines like she’s reciting the back of a macaroni and cheese box, Sumner sucks the blessed life out of everything when she’s onscreen.

That leaves talented supporting players like Adam Driver, Michael Esper, Michael Zegen, and Broadway’s Charlotte d’Amboise to pick up the slack and they can only do so much.  The rest is up to Gerwig and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the actress is quite engaging and energizes much of the film with her zeal and zest for life…clueless as she is to how much she’s messing it all up.

At 86 minutes this isn’t something you’ll be checking your watch through, but it’s also nothing that demands your attention either when there are so many other independent features that have the script, performances, and insight to give you better bang for your buck.

The Silver Bullet ~ Frances Ha

frances_ha

Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Release Date:  May 17, 2013

Thoughts: Is Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig the Parker Posey of this generation?  Gerwig has cut a nice swath for herself in the past few years with indie performances while occasionally appearing in a big-budget studio picture.  Like Posey, she’s adept at playing a range of characters without making them all feel like variations of the same shtick.  I still find that Posey is a more interesting actress overall but Gerwig is absolutely on the right path.  Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach (they also collaborated on the script), Frances Ha is presented as art-house indie through and through with its B&W photography and culturally observant/oblivious dialogue.  I find Baumbach and Gerwig to be hit or miss but applaud them for pushing themselves outside of the box they’ve created for themselves.