' ' Cinema Romantico: Marriage Story

Monday, December 16, 2019

Marriage Story

If Noah Baumbach movies have always been driven by dialogue, dating all the way back to his first, “Kicking and Screaming” (1995), he began, as many 90s indie filmmaker did, firmly of the Point-and-Shoot school. Gradually, however, with each successive film, he has ameliorated marrying his words to the film’s visuals, peaking with “Mistress America” (2015), where the dynamic language, co-written with Greta Gerwig, was not simply captured by the camera but seemed to carry the camera in its wake. And in “Marriage Story”, the blistering, oft-revealing nature of Baumbach’s conversations, charting the devastating spiral of a union, are only augmented by Baumbach’s visual command.

“Marriage Story” opens with a pair of montages and monologues in lockstep as we see and hear Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) Barber, darlings of the NYC theatre world, revel in the myriad details they love about their respective spouse. As loving as they are, though, cracks emerge, where, over different games of Monopoly, Charlie sees Nicole as overly competitive and Nicole sees Charlie as overly competitive. If this plays humorously, it’s Baumbach foreshadowing his intent to emphasize and question perspective. A few scenes later, in fact, we realize these voiceovers were culled from a couples therapy exercise in which they ultimately decline to participate. The thoughts are not imaginary, just left unsaid, illustrating how in a movie full of words their marriage is backsliding from words not spoken.

With their union established as already existing on the rocks, Nicole, an actress, leaves their home in New York and returns to Los Angeles, where’s she from, to star in a TV pilot, taking their son Henry (Azhy Roberston). If this sets up a bicoastal showdown between cosmopolitan elites, Baumbach has the courtesy to call attention to and skewer this, as he does in a courtroom scene where after a marital autopsy is metaphorically performed the Judge wryly notes there are a lot more couples waiting to have their say. Translation: you ain’t special! It’s funny, and Baumbach, as ever, excels at uproarious comedy amidst piercing truth, like a screwball scene in which Nicole, her mother (Julie Hagerty), and her sister (Merritt Weaver) hatch a plan to serve Charlie divorce papers. It’s not just Weaver’s comically awkward delivery of the papers but how the envelope bearing them goes unnoticed by Charlie twice, evoking how he can’t quite ever see what’s right in front of him and doesn’t notice it until it’s too late.

Indeed, in this scene, set in the kitchen, Charlie enters after having just arrived from the airport and immediately goes to the refrigerator, helping himself to leftover chicken. It suggests a familial intimacy at odds with the fissures of his own relationship, how someone can be so close yet simultaneously so far apart. And the double paradox becomes how in drawing apart, the process of divorce draws Charlie and Nicole closer, an idea Baumbach underlines in their many conversations – nay, arguments. Baumbach and his magnificent editor Jennifer Lame frequently start these wars of words in long or medium shots with more time between cuts until, as the dialogue grows more heated, the shots draw closer and the cuts quicker, like geysers rumbling until they erupt. And if the words are, as they often are with Baumbach, very written, these characters, given their roles in the theatre world, are accustomed to words and each fluent, cruel back and forth has the ring not of observations suddenly coming to them but long rehearsed.

If they have command of the words of their own arguments, when it comes to legalese, they are ignorant, meaning that in the big courtroom tête-à-tête they don’t say anything at all. Then again, the words spoken by their lawyers are just as often their own, each attorney drawing on a wealth of seemingly innocent moments leading up to it, fleeting moments and observations of a relationship repurposed as evidence, while Lame’s edits ensure we understand Nicole and Charlie are not just the emotionally injured parties but the focus, the facilitators. The scene presents divorce as wholly bereft of the idealistic empathy that Charlie’s initial attorney, Bert (Alan Alda), effuses, eventually forcing Charlie to enlist Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) instead, a performance earning the hoary adjective bulldog because of Liotta’s persistent attack stance, verbally and physically. Yet if these two male lawyers represent different sides of the coin, Nicole’s attorney, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), splits the difference, as cutthroat as she is compassionate, embodied in the sharpness of those high heels she kicks off to sit side-by-side with Nicole on the couch, professional self surrendering to personal. As Nora notes in a ferocious monologue, the divorce system might be set up to break you, but so is the system itself set up to break woman. “I represented Tom Petty’s wife in the divorce,” she says. “I got her one-half of that song.”

Nora, in other words, is helping Nicole get her part of the song, glimpsed in an incredible monologue where the camera never breaks with her character as she moves from the Nora’s sofa as therapist’s couch to the bathroom and back again, Johansson’s subtle vocal inflections demonstrating a dawning self-possession. And if “Marriage Story” is all about duality, then as Nicole is coming into her own, Charlie is losing sense of himself, or perhaps just coming to figure out who he was all along. That is brought home in Driver’s textured performance of confusion and pain improbably manifesting the old chestnut about one’s life slipping away, never more than when, suffering through a loquacious joke told by Bert, the panic of the whole damn deal palpably blooms on his face.

This scene occurs when Bert asks for a private chat with his client in the midst of divorce negotiations. Yet there is no similar scene that takes place between Nicole and Nora on the other side of the wall. That’s because even if “Marriage Story” alternates points-of-view it refrains from simply pogoing back and forth, like chapters in book, preferring to drift along with one character for awhile and then with another, not choosing sides but switching between them, eliciting the impression that this process could wind its way into eternity if not for a climactic sequence where Baumbach deftly transforms cringe-inducing comedy into nothing less than a metaphorical bloodletting giving way to the natural truth that even if a bond is broken the beat goes on.

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