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Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director most known for acerbic dramas with a very dark, pessimistic viewpoint. That changed somewhat once he began a filmmaking partnership with actress Greta Gerwig that began with 2013’s Frances Ha. Gerwig has since gone on to become an accomplished filmmaker in her own right with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing. The partnership seemed to bring out a softer side for Baumbach and they became a romantic couple who had a child earlier in 2019. Hell, Gerwig and Baumbach are even circling writing a Barbie movie together. This is a changed filmmaker and he brings that changed perspective to Marriage Story. It’s very different from Baumbach’s other movie about divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. I found that movie difficult, detached, and hard to emotionally engage with. Marriage Story, on the other hand, is a deeply felt, deeply observed, and deeply moving film experience that counts as one of the finest films of 2019.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are heading for divorce. He’s a successful theater director. She was a successful movie actress who relocated to New York City and has gotten an offer to shoot a pilot in L.A. Both say they want what’s best for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) but this will be tested as Charlie and Nicole push one another for what they feel is their best version of their family.

The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. I wouldn’t pry but Baumbach himself went through divorce around the time he was writing this, and I have to think some of those feelings and details seeped into this screenplay. Baumbach’s direction favors clarity and giving his actors wide berths to unleash meaty monologues or dynamic dialogue exchanges. The writing is sensational and every character is given a point of view that feels well realized. Even the combative lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) have perspectives you can see why they’re fighting for what they believe is right. But it’s watching Charlie and Nicole together that brings the most excitement. Watching the both of them onscreen allows for so much study of the little histories behind their words, their gestures, their impulses, and they feel like a great mystery to unpack. It feels like a real relationship you’ve been dropped into and left to pick up the histories and contradictions and all the rest that make people who they are.

It’s very easy and understandable for divorce dramas to essentially pick sides, to present a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist, like 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s easier for an audience to have a clear side to root for and a clear villain to root against, someone who they can see is more responsible for this breakdown of the family unit or for the infliction of emotional pain. What Baumbach does is something rare and exceedingly compassionate; he makes us like these two people as a couple in the opening ten minutes so that we can see how they could have shared a loving relationship for so long. The opening is mirrored voice over where each spouse narrates what they love or admire about the other person, and by doing this it’s like we too get to see these people in this adoring light. It’s like a ten-minute love letter and then it gets ripped away. However, by starting with this foundation, Baumbach has invested the audience immediately. We care about both of these people because we’ve seen them at their best, and now as things get more acrimonious and harder, it hurts us too because of that emotional investment. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care for one another or have essential elements of friendship. A simple shoelace tying at the very end of the movie nearly had me in tears because of its everyday act of kindness. These are complex human beings with needs, desires, egos, pressure points, and we watch both of them struggle through a stressful process where they’re trying to do right but that definition keeps morphing with every next step. If there are villains, it’s the lawyers, but even they are given degrees of explanation and perspectives to explain why they fight as hard as they do.

I have read several reviews that disagree with my “no sides” assessment, citing how the movie presents more of Charlie’s perspective during Act Two, and this is true. The extra time onscreen, however, doesn’t erase his faults as a husband. The transition to this handover is Nicole unburdening herself to her lawyer (Dern) in a gorgeous seven-minute monologue. It’s a thrilling moment for Johansson as the character begins guarded and afraid of saying anything too harsh, and then as she starts talking it’s like you watch layer after layer get pulled free, allowing this woman to open up about her untended wants and desires and to legitimately be heard in perhaps the first time in a decade, and it’s so powerful and sympathetic and natural. To then think that Baumbach intends to portray this same woman as a villain seems like a misreading. The second act does involve Charlie being more reactive to the new obstacles of divorce, like being forced to hire a lawyer to officially respond, to start a residence in L.A., and to eventually be observed by an evaluator of the court. He holds to the belief that he and Nicole don’t need the acrimony, don’t need the pain, and that they can be adults when it comes to deciding their end. Whether this is naivety will depend on your own worldview, but holding to this belief gets Charlie playing catch-up a lot and having to roll with changes for fear of being seen as an uncooperative parent, like when Nicole’s friends don’t want to go trick-or-treating with Charlie present so he’s forced into a second later more pathetic outing. We do get to see Charlie beset with challenges but that doesn’t erase Nicole’s challenges too.

For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. While the movie has its lows, it can also find delicate and absurd humor in the moment, reminding the audience that life isn’t always doom and gloom even when things are going poorly. The sequence where Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver, wonderful) are bickering over the exact steps to legally serve Charlie divorce papers reminded me of a screwball comedy, how the nerves and fumbles of the characters were elevating the experience into touching the absurd. Nicole’s entire family is a great comedic array of characters including her mother (Julie Hagerty) who says she has her own personal relationship with her daughter’s ex-husband that she wishes to maintain. They even have pet names for one another (this brought back memories for me as I’ve had mothers of ex-girlfriends still want to talk with me weeks after their daughter dumped me). The legal asides are also filled with absurdist moments of comedy about double-speak and the arcane or idiosyncratic rules of divorce and representation in the courts. The sequence of Charlie being watched by the deadpanned court evaluator (Martha Kelley, TV’s Baskets) is a terrific example of cringe comedy. He’s trying to impress her but she’s generally unflappable, to hilarious degree, and it only leads to more miscues that Charlie tries to ignore or downplay to win her favor.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is also one of the hardest hitting dramas of the year. Because we like both participants, because there is something at stake, watching them tear each other apart is a painful and revelatory experience. There is one gigantic confrontation that, like Nicole’s first confession, begins small and cordial and builds and builds in intensity, to the point where walls are punched, threats are unleashed, and both parties end in tears. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels akin to watching the defusing of a bomb ready to explode. Baumbach never feels the need to artificially inflate his drama, so we stick with that observational and compassionate ethos that has guided the entire film, even during the ugly moments. These are two people with pain and frustrations who both feel they have been wronged and are in the right. They’re both entitled to their pain, they’re both at fault for letting things get to this precipice, and they can both acknowledge that as well. Because even at their worst, Nicole and Charlie are still portrayed as human beings and human beings worthy of our empathy. They aren’t heroes or villains, they’re simply real people trying to navigate a hard time with conflicting feelings and needs.

The acting is outstanding. Driver (BlackkKlansman) is sensational and goes through an emotional wringer to portray Charlie, trying to stay above it all for so long and losing parts of himself along the way. His outbursts are raw and cut right through, but it’s also his smaller moments of ignorance, dismissiveness, or tenderness that linger, providing a fuller picture of who Charlie is, why one could fall in love with him and why one could fall out of love. I fully expect Driver to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. He even gets to sing a Sondheim tune and uses it as a reflection point. A late moment, when he’s reading a particular letter, drew tears and got me choked up. He’s always been such a visceral actor, a man with a magnetic charisma and animalistic sense of energy that draws your attention. He’s finally found a role that showcases how brilliant an actor Driver can be. This is also easily the best work of Johansson’s (Avengers: Endgame) career. Let there be no doubt – this woman can be a tremendous actress with the right material. She’s struggling with her sense of identity, being tied to Charlie for so long, and “wanting my own Earth” for so long that the dissolution process is both tumultuous but also exciting for what it promises. Nicole can take those chances, her Hollywood viability still alive, and strike out doing the things she’s wanted to do, like direct. Her character has felt like a supportive prisoner for so long and now she gets to make a jailbreak. Johansson is an equal partner onscreen to Driver, trading the tenderness and hostility moment-for-moment.

This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, and I adored Frances Ha. I was expecting a degree of bitterness from the normally prickly filmmaker, and that’s to be had considering the subject matter of divorce. What I wasn’t expecting was the depth of feeling and compassion that flows from this movie’s very steady beating heart. It feels real and honest in a way that a movie simply about the horrors of divorce and breakups and custody battles could not. Baumbach’s characters aren’t just meant to suffer and inflict pain, they’re meant to come through the other side with something still intact. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note in the entire two-plus hours onscreen. It feels like you’re watching real people. Marriage Story is a wonderful movie and I hope people won’t be scared off by its subject matter. It’s funny, empathetic, and resoundingly humane, gifting audiences with a rich portrait. It should be arriving to Netflix streaming by December 6, so fire up your queue and have the tissues at the ready.

Nate’s Grade: A

Frances Ha (2013)

1980Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker I generally don’t care for. I quite enjoyed his first feature, the college comedy Kicking and Screaming, and his co-authorship of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a worthy venture. But I normally associate such unrepentant misery with this guy’s movies, chiefly because they’re generally about miserable people being miserable (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg). I was surprised then when his new movie Frances Ha got ringing endorsements from several of my trusted female friends, the kind who would not cotton to Baumbach’s usual pedigree of filmmaking. I took the plunge and was captivated by the shrewd, funny, and surprisingly affectionate portrayal of a twenty-something woman finding herself late (ish) in life.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice for a dance company in New York City waiting her turn at much in life. She’s waiting for her post-college life to fall into place; however, her world gets shaken up when her roommate and best friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out. The distance grows beyond physical proximity and Frances feels like she’s drifting away from her closest friend. In the meantime, she sputters trying to become an adult herself, swapping roommates and living conditions, and getting into trouble with guys, money, and Sophie.

130510_MOV_FrancesHa.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeWhile a bit freeform in its plot momentum, Frances Ha is a perceptive and ultimately poignant film exploring female friendship dynamics and the perils of growing up. Frances is something of an adorable mess but she’s been treading water for some time, bouncing around, but her window for avoiding the adult world is coming to a close and she knows it, which is why she feels the anxiety that she does. There’s something completely relatable about the anxiety of entering into the “adult world,” and yet it’s a transition we must all endure. Frances, now 27, has put it off as long as she could but even her “other half,” Sophie, is making the transition, and with it growing apart from her BFF. Frances may be living in New York City but she hasn’t had a charmed existence, the kind of hipster nouveau rich experience we see detailed in Lena Dunham’s Girls (a show I genuinely enjoy, though the second season was a bit iffy). When Frances is out on a date, an event she engineered because she just got her tax return, she discovers she has to pay in cash. She then runs several blocks looking for an ATM. When she finds one she stands in great deliberation at the screen. She’ll incur a $3 fee for withdrawing. When she returns, she apologizes to her date, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” Despite these economic bearings, she makes impulsive decisions but pays for them. A spontaneous weekend getaway to Paris, which she spends most of it sleeping or moping, results in Frances working back at her alma mater in a menial fashion.

There’s also Baumbach’s signature dark humor that follows Frances like a dark cloud, her life regularly a series of more downs than ups. However, Baumbach’s caustic sensibilities have been sanded down, perhaps thanks to co-writer/girlfriend Gerwig’s involvement, and the movie adopts a tone less scabrous and more knowing. It doesn’t position us to laugh at Frances as a self-involved moron who makes poor decisions; we’re laughing from the standpoint of perspective. I noticed little judgment (when she says “my friends make fun of me because I can’t explain where my bruises come from,” I thought of a few female friends in my life who could relate). Not much goes right for Frances through the duration of the movie, but by the end she appears to have come out the stronger. She’s got the beginnings of her entrance into the adult world and the movie leaves the impression that she’s going to be okay. I appreciated that she didn’t abandon her passion with dance as if becoming a grown-up meant stepping away from what you care about. That concluding uplift provides a reward for the audience and Frances after so many missteps and struggles. There’s a tenderness here that’s refreshing for Baumbach.

I also thought Frances Ha was a very insightful and interesting look at female dynamics, something that rarely gets such a thoughtful and high profile examination. Friendships, especially those between women, can function like romantic relationships when it comes to intimacy, minus the sex. Frances and Sophie comment that their relationship is like an old lesbian couple that has stopped having sex. They are each other’s other half, attuned perfectly to one another’s peculiar sensibilities. When Frances tries to recreate these sensibilities with another woman, she responds in annoyance. At the very beginning, Frances gets into a fight and breaks up with her boyfriend all because he wanted her to move in with him and thus away from Sophie. We feel her grief then when this important person, this long-standing friend that Frances has defined her own sense of identity with, is moving on and moving out. We’ve all had those people in our lives whose personal successes force us to reflect upon our own life trajectories, and we may grimace. It’s an unavoidable part of growing up but our relationships will alter and the people important in our lives will fluctuate, many times through no fault to either party. Frances and Sophie are at that crossroads as Sophie settles down with a career and an emerging and serious relationship, while Frances is sputtering and trying to hold onto the past. The end even borrows a literal nod from 2011 Bridesmaids, one of my favorite films of that year. Frances yearns for a love that is so powerful so transcendent, that all it needs is a look, a silent nod of communication that both parties share, invisible to all others. It doesn’t take a genius to infer that this look will be between Frances and Sophie by film’s end.

Frances-HaGerwig (Arthur, To Rome with Love) has been an up-and-coming It Girl for some time in Hollywood, rising in the ranks of mumblecore cinema and becoming a muse for Baumbach. Frances Ha is tailor-made to her amiable strengths; the woman is easy to fall in love with. Watch her skip and dance through the streets of New York, set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and try not to smile. Gerwig has a natural, easy-going charisma and a screen presence that grabs you. Her cheerful, unmannered dorkiness grounds Frances’ vanity, making her far more relatable and worthy of our rooting. France sis no mere Manic Pixie Dream Girl sketch of a woman; here is a three-dimensional figure for the taking. Gerwig also has fantastic chemistry with Sumner (TV’s The Borgias), daughter of Sting. You instantly get a feel for the history these two have shared with their relaxed interactions. And speaking of HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver, a.k.a. Adam, has a substantial supporting role and another Frances Ha actor, Michael Zegen (TV’s Boardwalk Empire), will appear in season 3. Small world.

Frances Ha owes as much to the French New Wave as it does to the observational mumblecore movies of Gerwig’s early roots. Here is a film that’s perceptive, dryly funny, poignant, and relatively lovely in its quieter moments of everyday life and relationships, rich with feeling. It’s angst and ennui without overpowering self-absorption. Your ultimate judgment is going to rest on your opinion of Gerwig and the Frances character, but I found both to be charming and easy to relate with. We want this woman to land on her feet, find her place in the world so to speak, but the movie refrains from casting condescension. Frances isn’t stupid; she’s a bit naïve and a bit impulsive and oblivious, but this woman is also hopeful, passionate, persistent, and a good person at heart. Losing her closest female friend is akin to the worst breakup of her life. She’s sputtering to redefine herself, to find traction with the adult world she knows she cannot hold off any longer. In that sense, Frances Ha is also a winning look at late-bloomers. It’s Baumbach’s best film since Kicking and Screaming and one of the best films of 2013 thus far.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

It feels good to be a Wes Anderson fan once again. The indie auteur has a very distinctive style that he seems to have little regard in altering. I’ve been critical of Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, comparing it to crafting wonderfully composed, intricate dollhouses minus compelling or relatable characters to inhabit these artfully constructed mini-worlds. Without that necessary element, it’s all just fancy window dressing. Finally, Anderson, with Moonrise Kingdom, has concocted another movie where the characters grab more of your attention than the backgrounds.

Set in 1965 on a small island just off the New England coast, the movie follows the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both twelve years old. Sam has run away from his summer camp, the Khaki Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton). Suzy has run away from her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand). The small island’s one police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), enlists the help of several Khaki Scouts he deputizes to find the missing duo. It’s revealed through a serried of letters, and flashbacks, that Sam and Suzy have been plotting their escape for over a year. They’re in love, and they’re going to make sure nobody interferes.

What more relatable than young love? Sam and Suzy just want to be together and the rest of the adult world seems intent on keeping them apart. Right away you’re pulling for these kids, rooting for their triumph, and the movie does a fantastic job of replicating the innocence of young love without overly romanticizing a very nervous, awkward time in life. When Sam and Suzy practice kissing, for what is obviously the first time, I defy anyone sitting in the audience not to feel a recognizable pang of insecurity. The experimentation is a tad more realistic than you might expect with the PG-13 rating but still nothing to shatter the youthful innocence of the picture. There is not a tawdry moment in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a time in life when the knowledge of sex existed without a keen understanding of sensuality, like in Miranda July’s Me, and You, and Everyone We Know. It’s more like fumbling around with what you think is appropriate activity. Still, the fact that the movie features twelve-year-olds in their underwear dancing and mildly experimenting means Moonrise Kingdom might draw a swath of ticket-buyers for the wrong reasons (beware the patron in a raincoat).

The scrupulous attention to detail is the same obsessive quality you come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. He builds living worlds and his color schemes and shot arrangements add much texture to this idiosyncratic landscape. Unlike Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, these artistic elements work in harmony rather than conflict; Anderson actually seems to care about the people here. Chances are if you’re not a Wes Anderson fan, Moonrise Kingdom will probably not be the movie to win you over. The whimsical, storybook nature of the film actually accentuates the broader themes; bright-eyed exploration, the magic of possibility with love, and an unyielding hope. The movie feels like one of Suzy’s storied adventures come to life but without compromising the relatable character conflicts. The movie does build a nice head of steam thanks to the pursuit of our runaway romantics. There’s also a palpable sense of danger lurking, as the kids risk life and limb and even experience death, albeit a dog (Suzy: “Was he a good dog?” Sam: “Who’s to say?”). It’s a poignant tale of childhood but it doesn’t feel childish, a family film meant for people probably too young for families.

Moonrise Kingdom walks a fine line between whimsical and overly precious. Less skilled filmmakers haven fallen suit to making insufferably twee film productions consumed by their own indulgent sense of preciousness. Moonrise Kingdom is full of the typical Anderson quirk but it doesn’t overpower the narrative or define the characters in such limited personal scopes. There’s plenty of laughs to be had with the film, most in the wry chuckle variety; I was laughing throughout, finding those staple peculiar touches to be the most amusing, from the Scout Master reading a magazine titled “Indian Corn,” to Bob Balaban’s questionably omniscient narrator, to some improvised natural earrings.

The movie is consistently funny but also far sweeter than I would have imagined given the detached, arch nature of Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Again, the kids are precocious and the adults act more like children, but everyone is really hurting and lonely and looking for a means of coping or persevering, with the biggest source of pain being love; the longing, the ache, the uncertainty of when and if it will return. Usually Anderson’s films involve dysfunctional families mending some degree of their brokenness by film’s end and formulating a connection. With Moonrise Kingdom, the plot is on two kids falling in love and their will to endure. I appreciate that Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (Darjeeling Limited) do not trivialize or look down upon the relationship between Sam and Suzy (“Oh, it’s just puppy love you silly, naïve, waifs.”). To them it feels like everything. The tender approach to young love opens the film up to a broader audience without compromising the director’s unique vision. I’d hardly say the film approaches overt sentimentality. What’s there feels earned and more reserved than what we might expect from burgeoning romance. When the expressions of affection occur, they have greater weight and make a greater impact charming the audience.

The first-time child actors do a credible job with carrying the film. Hayward and Gilman are charming and easy to like, though I wish Anderson had pushed his young actors a tad harder. They seem stiff at times and a little above-it-all in attitude. I applaud the kids for acting somewhat reserved rather than going crazy with their budding hormones. Both characters are also characterized as “emotionally disturbed,” though this seems like another of the film’s damning details about the out-of-touch adults dictating their lives. I just wished we sensed a greater degree of urgency from them about this whole adventure and the possibility of losing one another. They feel a tad blasé, all things considered.

The bigger celebrity names in the cast assume smaller roles, and many of the supporting characters are thinly sketched with personal conflicts mostly kept at a simmer. These are grownups that, at their heart, don’t know what to do with their feelings. Sam and Suzy feel liberated by their feelings. I found Murray’s blustery sense of anger amusing, and Willis does some subtle work to give you a sense how truly lonely his character is to the core, but it’s Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who steals the show in my book as the fast-talking, mercurial, scheming Cousin Ben who seems to have whatever somebody needs. When he agrees to marry Sam and Suzy and acknowledges that their marriage will not be deemed official under any court whatsoever, you get a sense that Moonrise Kingdom has been missing a propulsive and delightful character like Cousin Ben. I wish he had been inserted earlier, but this is Sam and Suzy’s movie, after all.

It’s not on the same level as Rushmore of The Royal Tenenbaums (my favorite Anderson films), but it’s a film that feels a lot more alive and emotionally resonant. It feels like a return to form for Anderson, remembering that the characters and their drama need to be as engaging as the set design. The turbulent young love of Sam and Suzy is sweet and leads to some tender yet poignant moments that warm the heart without making you overdose on cheap sentiment. The idiosyncratic touches are all there, the ironic humor, and the stellar soundtrack selection (Benjamin Britten’s deconstructive orchestral marches stand out as a thematic core), everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, except this time you’ll find the characters recognizable, their struggle compelling, and the end rewarding. Moonrise Kingdom isn’t the most substantive film playing in theaters but damned if it isn’t the most alluring, amusing, and affectionate, yet all on its own terms. Who would have guessed that a pair of twelve-year-olds would help us show what real love is in 2012?

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

A very personal film for writer/director Noah Baumbach, this flick exposes the bitterness of divorce better than any other film. The performances are great, especially Jeff Daniels as a note-perfect sour snob whose ego is constantly needing gratification. The humor is more of an uncomfortable nature and nervous titters. The Squid and the Whale is really short and altogether well-done, however, if you’re not a child of divorce you will find it somewhat lacking. Had I been such a child, I would probably be calling this one of the greatest, most emotionally honest movies of the year. But I’m not, so I’m not going to call it such.

Nate’s Grade: B

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