Sunday, December 15, 2019

Noah Baumbach | Marriage Story


somewhere between reasonable and crazy
by Douglas Messerli

Noah Baumbach (writer and director) Marriage Story / 2019

As in his earlier film, The Squid and the Whale, and now in his new film Marriage Story, couples, ready to divorce begin by attempting amicable separations to help themselves and children in the difficult process in which they will both be pawns to issues to do with time-sharing—how one wonders do children comprehend such alternate times which wrench them out of their communal existence with the people with whom they have lived their entire lives?—and their mutual financial futures, including their formerly shared home and everything that lies within.
      But all things surrounding divorce never allow for the “amicable” aspirations of the couples, as lawyers take over their lives, each demanding more for their clients. I’ve observed this several times in the lives of my friends. And films have represented this time and again in works such as Kramer vs. Kramer (with which Noah Baumbach’s new film shares a great deal of sentiment), Mrs. Doubtfire, and the over-the-top version of a divorce film, The War of the Roses. Nothing about divorce is ever simple, as both parties cannot help but dig into their senses of resentment and injustice.

     To have created a rather lighter comedic version of this, as Baumbach has, is almost a miracle. Yet even here, as the lovely couple who you truly do feel should have stayed together, stage director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and his actress-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), try their hardest to protect their young, intelligent and inquisitive son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) to retain his close relationships he has maintained with both his loving father and mother, there are roadblocks at every corner.
      Like Woody Allen’s films, in this movie Baumbach also stirs the pot/plot with other ridiculous tensions of geography, pitting Charlie, the New Yorker, with his wife, a Los Angeles-born figure, who has returned to that city in order to follow a more lucrative and interesting career. She is perhaps right to do so, and her supportive mother (the wonderful Julie Hagerty), and sister (Merritt Wever) welcome her home.
      In this case, however, it is a mixed blessing, since both also love her husband, Charlie, and recognize him as a loving presence. Indeed, the very first scene of the film is a restatement of both divorcee’s good qualities, requested by a family psychologist, in which they readily admit how caring and loving, if terribly competitive, they are. We witness Charlie reading to his son in bed, observe Nora tenderly trying to help him adapt to his new life—to which it appears he has completely accepted; the young Henry is quite happier in Los Angeles than the gritty, difficult New York, despite Charlie’s insistence that they are still a New York family.
      Clearly, they are not anymore. Particularly when Nicole seeks out a famous Los Angeles lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), based, I’d suggest on LA lawyer Gloria Allred, who seductively intuits Nicole’s long-time feelings of frustration in her relationship with Charlie, encouraging her not only to seek California rights over her custody of Henry but also to take a large chunk of the MacArthur Grant which her husband has just been awarded.
      When he attempts to return to New York to simply help his play make its significant transition, he is served with papers, surreptitiously slipped under his coffee-cup by sister-in-law.  
      Charlie is told that he, too, must get a Los Angeles lawyer, and should even move to LA in order to maintain any rights for his son’s custody. Like a highway-robber, the first lawyer he approaches, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), demands an exorbitant down-payment against his outrageously high per-hour wages.
      Nearly broke, and having planned to pour in any money from his new grant into his small theater company which is about to move a play from off the radar onto Broadway, Charlie seeks a far cheaper lawyer, Bert Spitz (performed by Alan Alda, in one the best roles of his career). Bert advises the New Yorker to not only get an apartment in Los Angeles, but to cancel his New Yorker residency, upon which Charlie has no choice but to fire him. In this world mothers and their geographical locations have complete control.
      Fortunately, despite the evident affects of Baumbach’s own childhood separations from him and his clearly beloved father, the director has chosen to maintain a rather comic view in this newest film, wherein Charlie finally admits his selfishness (which includes a brief affair), and a kind of reconfirmation of the couple’s earlier love, allowing him to regularly visit his son—despite Nicole’s lawyer’s “slightly” better terms for her client—while accepting a year-residency at UCLA to be closer to Henry.
      This is, after all, a movie about celebrity wealth, people who can make such decisions that are somewhere between “reasonable and crazy.” Most of us, in the same situation, would not have had those choices available, alas. And this is what is Baumbach fails to perceive. The general audience, filled with filed divorce cases simply cannot redeem their lives with lovely songs, wonderfully performed, from the musical about the male single Bobby who refuses marriage, from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Yes, it’s lovely to hear the three women, Nicole, her mother and sister perform “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and the even more enjoyable end song from that musical, “Being Alive” sung quite brilliantly by Adam Driver:

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.

Somebody need me too much.
Somebody know me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.

      Currently estimated, the divorce rate in the United States is between 49-50%. In other words, all those lovely weddings and the couples’ beautiful marital vows is a total crapshoot, half of them ending up in the hell of divorce, not the hell of love of which the Sondheim lyric suggests.
      If Baumbach’s film seems to argue for an affirmative solution, for most of those now-separated individuals there is no easy way out. For nearly half of our population, being alive results also in being half-dead. And their children, to which Baumbach’s films attest, are left devastated.
      Unlike The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story is a kind of Hollywood movie, wherein everything seems to turn out just fine, father, mother, son remaining in a kind of clumsy relationship spelled out by a later scene of the Halloween trick-or-treat visits, Nicole and her new boyfriend, along with her son, appearing in costumes that resemble The Beatles, while Charlie tags along as a kind of ghost.
      While I liked this film, it also made me very sad, particularly since I now have survived nearly 50 years of love, support, and hell.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).


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