Thursday January 09, 2020
Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” spends two hours on the dissolution of a marriage and its subsequent divorce proceedings, and the early critical take was how even-handed it was. Both parties, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), have their faults and their favors. Some viewers side with Charlie, some Nicole, but you empathize with both.
This is particularly impressive, people said, since it's based on Baumbach’s recent divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Even the attorneys have real-world parallels. Baumbach, people are saying, managed to tell his ex-wife’s side. What Kundera says about “the wisdom of the novel”? Baumach had it here.
That was the early critical take.
It’s not mine. I can’t remember the last time I was as furious at a movie character as I was with Nicole. I hated her. I was literally flipping her off in the movie theater. With both fingers.
Why I hated her
Early on, it’s obvious they’re going to get divorced. There’s sadness, etc., but they’re mature, and they agree that the whole thing should be without attorneys to make it as amicable and as cheap as possible.
A few things prevent this from happening.
They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, in a great performance), so there’s the custody issue. But they’re fine sharing custody.
The issue is where. As a family, they’ve always lived in New York. Except she recently got a gig on a TV show and moved back to LA, where she grew up, and where her family lives. So how can they share custody on two different coasts? Would Henry go to two different schools? Can you even do that?
Anyway, that’s the basic dilemma.
How do Charlie and Nicole deal with it? Charlie mostly ignores it, to be honest. He’s kind of got his head in the clouds—or in his art. And he assumes that the LA thing is temporary and Nicole will soon move back to New York City. Which she loves, right? Bad on him for not seeing things clearly.
Nicole deals with it by hiring an attorney. And not just any attorney, but a high-end, cutthroat, creepily ingratiating attorney, Nora Fanshaw, played to the hilt by Laura Dern in all of her Laura Dern-ness. So Nicole does what they told each other they wouldn’t do. And she seems oblivious to this fact. And for the rest of the movie, she’s basically secure. She has a well-paying job, a big home in LA, Henry is with her.
Not Charlie. The rest of the movie is his humiliating scramble to keep up. First he hires his own 40th floor, glass-office-tower attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), but no, that guy’s way too cutthroat, he’d say mean things about Nicole. So he hires amiable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose office is cramped, cluttered and cat-filled, and who sees Charlie as a person not a case. Charlie loves that. He’s momentarily relieved but we aren’t. I was thinking there was maybe a 10% chance Bert might make a decent match against Nora but she eats him for lunch. Huddling in a back office, Charlie suddenly realizes his predicament while Bert veers off into a joke. It’s long, pointless, with repeated iterations, and Charlie keeps glancing at the clock. “I’m sorry, Bert,” he finally asks, “am I paying for this joke?”
Cut to: The return of Marotta/Liotta. “I needed my own asshole,” he tells Nicole.
Guess what? Nicole doesn’t even get that. She thinks it’s out of bounds. I’m like: What did she think Nora Fanshaw was?
It gets worse. While she’s living in her nice home, Charlie is forced to rent a motel, then an apartment that feels like a motel. While Nicole takes Henry trick or treating through rich neighborhoods; Charlie is forced to get late, sloppy seconds in his shitty, highway-heavy neighborhood. We see the pain he goes through when the evaluator, in all her grand dimness, arrives. We hear the pain he’s going through when he sings a Stephen Sondheim song “Being Alive” before his friends at a NYC club. We imagine the pain he goes through when his Broadway play closes because he’s making too many trips to the coast. Nicole? She sings a wacky song with her sister and mother, all smiles, we never see her interact with the evaluator, and her stupid TV show is doing just fine, thank you.
And then Baumbach implies, through Nora Fanshaw, that women somehow have it tougher in custody battles? Are you shitting me? It was only in the last few decades that men even had a chance in hell. Before that, everyone thought, “Of course children should be with the mother!” But here, Nora pointedly gets to blather on about how people don’t accept mothers who swear and drink too much wine but imperfect dads are just fine. There’s a larger truth in that, sure—the bar for men is way lower—but not in custody battles. I think that's the wrong arena. Even the attorney Fanshaw is based on says she doesn't agree with it.
Just how awful is Fanshaw? In the end, she makes Charlie—or maybe Marotta—accept a 55-45 split without consulting her client, who wanted 50-50. She does it for herself. For her own ego.
I’m sorry, but I don’t know how anyone can watch this and feel equal empathy for both sides.
What’s my mantra?
So is it good? Sure. Great performances. Driver particularly. And the kid. I thought of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” of course. But there, Dustin Hoffman's Ted has to become a good father. Here, Charlie starts out a good father. What he has to become is both a better ex-husband (one who hears what others are saying) and a tougher ex-husband (one who knows enough not to hire Alan Alda). I also thought of “Annie Hall”—that whole Jewish New Yorker/Gentile LA dynamic. Except here Charlie is won over. He winds up moving to LA. That would never happen to Alvy.
The most devastating scene, as well as the funniest, is the one with the court-appointed evaluator, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), who is visiting Charlie to evaluate what kind of father he is. And my favorite part? She rings the wrong doorbell. So the woman who is going to evaluate the most important decision in his life can’t even figure out where he lives. And he has to be nice to her.
Is Baumbach best when he tells stories that are autobiographical? Or about divorce? Up to now, my favorite of his has been “The Squid and the Whale,” his 2005 take on his own parents’ divorce. I liked “Greenberg,” too. Hated “Frances Ha,” which still has tons of fans, while “While We’re Young” felt inconsequential and misplaced. Missed “Mistress America” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
What I disliked abut “Frances Ha” and “While We’re Young” is that the characters seemed like they could be real but felt untrue. They felt forced. Plus their dilemmas weren’t interesting. The characters of “Marriage Story” seem real and feel true—probably because they were. Plus their dilemmas matter. Or his does.