Director Noah Baumbach
MARRIAGE STORY A
USA (136 mi) 2019 d: Noah Baumbach
Coming full circle in his career, while The Squid and the Whale (2005) is about a nasty divorce (without lawyers) between two literary parents largely seen through the children’s perspective, as the parental anger is internalized through the kids, returning to familiar territory more than a decade later, featuring the tug and pull on a single child during a contentious divorce, largely seen through the eyes of a show business couple splitting up on opposite coasts, where each film is a devastating emotional train wreck, though this may be Baumbach’s most mature work to date, largely losing the satiric comic humor, which may work as a defense mechanism, finally allowing the excruciating drama to breathe and unfold naturally. In each film, the director speaks from experience, having endured a particularly contentious divorce between his literary parents as a child, and then experiencing it again firsthand during his 2013 divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Both films are emotionally impactful and career defining, with the earlier film favoring brief comic vignettes that stand out for their incisively expressed anguish and pain, while this later film is an hour longer, administering surges of corrosively exploding disagreements that send shock waves into the audience, as otherwise likeable people become combatants in a theatrically staged court process that feels absurdly designed to humiliate all parties concerned, leaving horrific carnage in its wake, which is supposedly in the best interests of the children. Somehow, someway, people are supposed to recover from these traumatizing events and become reasonable people who are still capable of instilling love for their mutual children while working out the shared responsibilities of raising them from different homes. Paying tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s epic SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), though never taking sides, what’s uniquely different about this film is the freedom to explore both distinctly different personalities as they themselves are realizing the full extent of what is taking place internally, as no one is more surprised by the changing dynamics than they are, having been living comfortably under one roof, both successful in their own careers, happily combining their forces onstage, becoming part of the existing theater scene in New York. Baumbach has always been known as an exquisitely gifted writer, as his performance-generated films accentuate a kind of free-flowing dialogue that is both smart and humorous at the same time, finding it easy to personally internalize his experiences cinematically, much like Woody Allen did early in his career when his films were immersed in the cultural spotlight of New York City, developing a kind of East coast chic, yet SQUID was the benchmark of his talents until this film, which is unlike anything else he’s ever done, more open, more accessible, yet emotionally abrasive, where it’s hard not to feel the open vein of heartbreak when you realize love often isn’t enough.
Ostensibly the story of two charismatically appealing people, both providing the performance of their careers, Charlie (Adam Driver), an up and coming avant-garde theater director in New York who throws everything he makes back into his theater, while his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), is the leading lady who stars in all his productions, where their lives revolve around each new play, consumed by the inherent possibilities of new expressions. Together they have an adored 8-year old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), where the beauty of their marriage is that they’re all intrinsically attuned to one another, where one is an extension of the other, even down to the tiniest details, both openly generous, where there’s an unspoken language for married couples, who somehow know what the other is thinking or what they need and instantly provides it without so much of a thought, as it all happens so easily, becoming second nature to them. The film opens with two meticulously detailed and amazingly coherent letters revealing everything they like about the other person, which defines them in adoringly lovable ways, exploring everything that’s uniquely different about them, while exposing their innate humanity, as this is the core foundation of their love. It’s such a beautiful way to start a film, immediately pulling the audience into their inner wavelengths, finding something appealing about them both. Without question they work well together, yet suddenly they’re in the offices of a marriage counselor, expected to read their prepared letters, but a fuming Nicole refuses, storming out in protest, finding it a complete waste of time. Both decide they don’t want lawyers, thinking they can figure it out themselves. As if in response, she decides to take a role in a television pilot that may or may not get picked up, moving to West Hollywood with Henry, living with her unhinged showbiz mother (Julie Hagerty) and socially awkward sister (Merritt Wever), exploring what her career might be like without Charlie. While it’s viewed as a temporary, knee-jerk response, it literally opens the door to a brand new world for Nicole, something she always turned down before in favor of working with her husband, feeling she may have sacrificed her own career for his, but is now open to new opportunities. Both she and Henry blossom in their new environment, while Charlie remains engrossed in his theater company, as his play is moving to Broadway, completely unaware of her emotional transformation, which is unleashed in a monologue of expurgated fury, where the intensity of her built-up anger surprises even her, unleashed in the offices of a hyper-focused divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern), friendly to a fault, but specializing in going for the jugular, offering her own blistering speech on the religiously entrenched societal devaluation of motherhood. When Charlie comes to visit announcing that he’s won a “genius” MacArthur Fellowship grant, a prestigious award that comes with a sizable monetary stipend that can help fund his theater project, he’s completely blindsided by being served divorce papers (which was family rehearsed), while also urged to find a hotel, as he can’t stay with Nicole. Welcome to life in LA.
What follows is a descent into the monstrous hell of divorce attorneys, like a Kafkaesque house of pain that makes no sense, as Charlie typically avoids all lawyerly repercussions while attempting to stage his play, forced at the last minute to respond in court or lose custody rights, so he searches desperately for a lawyer, torn between tough guy Ray Liotta who basically extorts all future earnings (including his grant), charging the astronomical amount of $950/hour, and nice guy Alan Alda, a grandfatherly type who empathizes with his pain, offers hugs, charges considerably less, but is easily manipulated in the hearings, allowing Nora to ride roughshod over them. Going through a series of humiliations and disappointments, having to fly back and forth between coasts, Charlie is up against it, as his world is simply collapsing all around him, living an agonizing life of deep turmoil, where every gesture is met with a resounding slam of the door. Even Henry turns against him, as he’s enrolled in school, has a bunch of new friends, where he’s enjoying himself more in the sunshine, surrounded by new opportunities, while Dad is in desperate straits, trying to hold on, but losing every step of the way, advised to establish residence in Los Angeles if he wants a chance of joint custody, but his life there is a dreary emptiness, a sham of an existence, kept away from his work which is collapsing without him, yet it’s his only chance to hold onto his son. Meanwhile, Nicole’s life is flourishing, coming out from under her husband’s shadow, where her talent is recognized, realizing her own hopes and dreams, as her pilot is picked up, and she’s even been offered the chance to direct, where she’s part of the Hollywood crowd now, hanging out at posh parties with all the beautiful people. However the day of reckoning arises, their ultimate day in court, with Charlie backed into a corner, forced to go with Mr. Big Bucks, Ray Liotta as his lawyer, where the back and forth resembles a street fight, each undermining the other with savage attacks of character, where it’s pure histrionics, like a theater performance of who can inflict the most damage, both ultimately leveled by heinously exaggerated accusations. It’s a pathetic display that leaves both feeling humbled and utterly ashamed afterwards, attempting some reconciliation in Charlie’s empty apartment, but it deteriorates into a blitzkrieg of frayed emotions, where all the innermost fears and perpetual anxieties come streaming out in a slugfest for the ages, leaving both devastated and emotionally exhausted afterwards, emptying themselves of all nagging resentments, perhaps free to finally let go. Subjected to a near surreal visit by a court appointed observer that ends in an unmitigated disaster, Baumbach magnificently pivots into two Stephen Sondheim songs from Company wonderfully getting the elevated exposure they deserve, capturing the richness and emotion of the lyrics while transforming them into new contexts, ambitiously interweaving them into the refreshingly new state of mind of each character, cleverly altering the meaning in marvelously inventive sequences. Nicole showcases her natural charisma singing You Could Drive a Person Crazy with her mother and sister in an upbeat Andrews Sisters-style rendition at a large party gathering with friends, now gloriously happy, in harmony with her surroundings and the picture of success, while Charlie, back in New York in a piano bar surrounded by his theater troupe breaks out into Being Alive, almost in jest at first, but then diving in full throttle, with the words just gushing out, literally pouring out his heart and soul, becoming a spontaneous stream-of-conscience revelation, shot in one take, revealing an exposed, vulnerable side, finally opening up again, reconnecting to his world, yet it’s done with such an instinctual theatrical flair, feeling so effortless and natural. Watching them process what they value the most, authentic performances, reveals a resuscitation of what’s so essential to them both as artists, bookending that marvelously inventive reading of the letters at the opening, coming full turn, both finally allowed to breathe again.