Divorce, American Style


Noah Baumbach assembled an outstanding cast for Marriage Story, which was a last minute replacement for the scheduled screening of The Banker (maybe it was pulled for going bankrupt?) at AFI Fest. He and the wonderful Laura Dern (who was so good in the pro-union HBO series Enlightened and the original Jurassic Park), appeared to present the Netflix production Marriage Story at the TCL Chinese Theatre where Baumbach remarked on how long he’s been looking forward to the occasion - exactly “29 and a half hours” since AFI Fest presumably scrambled to find a substitute for the Festival’s grand finale.


Be that as it may, the overly long two hour 16 minute dramedy (more drama than comedy) is a mixed bag and nowhere as powerful as Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From a Marriage starring the luminous Liv Ullman. Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, an L.A.-born actress performing for her playwright/director husband Charlie’s (Adam Driver) artsy New York theatre company. As Marriage Story opens, it appears that they have a solid if not ideal marriage - with a beautiful son (the adorable Azhy Robertson as Henry) who Nicole tells us, among his other admirable traits, Charlie is an excellent father too. They have a spacious, pleasant apartment, seem to get along professionally and personally, are financially comfortable and so on.


But shortly after the curtain lifts Nicole decides to throw it all away by divorcing Charlie. Her stated reasons are, indeed, reasonable, understandable and feminist complaints. However, the problem with this Story is that while it does tell us Nicole’s point of view, it doesn’t show us her perspective. And as all cinema school students learn in “Film 101,” in the motion picture medium showing generally trumps telling.

Indeed, the onscreen action seems to undercut Nicole’s contentions, which includes that Charlie has stifled her desire to move back to Los Angeles to pursue film and television roles. But when she does so (most of Story is set in La-La-Land), Nicole leaves an avant garde theatre company doing “serious” artistic work to act in a presumably frivolous but far higher paying TV sitcom. (Baumbach resurrects that old chestnut of the “sophisticated” New Yorker versus the “vapid,” “airhead” Angeleno, which I don’t think I’ve seen since Annie Hall in the 1970s. Does anybody really talk about or believe in this East Coast/West Coast rivalry stuff anymore?) Later on, when she’s about to have sex Nicole tells her partner-to-be something that indicates she’s a conflicted person. And so on.


This onscreen undermining of Nicole (Johansson was a great beauty but here strangely sports an unflattering hairdo, which is especially odd as her character cuts her husband and son’s hair) and her stated rationale for divorcing Charlie may be because Noah Baumbach is, like you know, a man, which seems to dilute his empathy for and to trivialize the female perspective. Meanwhile, Charlie - the injured party - remains steadfast throughout, becoming at great expense (financially, time-wise, etc.) a frequent flyer and bi-coastal dad, as he fights to maintain his parental relationship with and custody of his little boy, whom Nicole has taken with her to L.A. (Good for him - boo for her?)


Furthermore, this far too lengthy movie includes long, tedious scenes crying out for an editor. In particular, I am referring to Nicole’s first meeting with hardball divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Dern), which just goes on forever. Now here is a scene where I get to watch two fab actresses I’m a fan of and think are both easy on the ol’ orbs, yet I’m complaining about an overly long yak session between them. (Writer/ director Baumbach, who was Oscar-nommed in a writing category for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, needs to add a new word to his vocabulary: “Cut!”)


Nora (does her name reference the protagonist of Ibsen’s female empowerment classic A Doll’s House?) has a strong feminist speech members of the audience applauded for about double standards that ensure women get the short end of the stick in patriarchal society. But towards Story’s end, Nora admits something about her courtroom tough tactics that indicates her sharp-edged legal machinations and approach wasn’t only to ensure her female client attained justice, but just in order to win. Call it “one upswomanship” Nice guys - and gals - finish last, as women appear to do in Baumbach’s screenplay that again undercuts the female POV.


Nicole’s retention of Nora is a betrayal of her agreement with Charlie to work out their divorce details between themselves (and a very expensive one at that), which indicates she is dishonest. This also chips away at the woman’s side of the Story, as does Charlie’s marital infidelity being “understandable,” if not outright justified. In any case (so to speak), forced to seek counsel, Charlie retains a barely recognizable Ray Liotta and also Alan Alda, who both deliver drolly enjoyable performances.


Also in supporting roles are Merritt Weaver (the best thing about the Nurse Jackie Showtime series) as Nicole’s sister, Cassie, and Julie Haggerty, who was so memorably hilarious in Albert Brooks’ 1985 Lost in America, as Sandra, Nicole’s mom who rather tellingly persists in affection for her estranged son-in-law. Wally Shawn plays the veteran thesp of Charlie’s N.Y. troupe who regales his fellow players with amusing anecdotes about celebrities and libertine advice.


Marriage Story’s stellar cast makes the first two thirds or three quarters of this 136 minute marital marathon bearable, and the fact that several of the actors co-starred in sitcoms is a clever nod to Nicole’s “going Hollywood” in pursuit of situation comedy fame and fortune. The movie really comes alive in a confrontation scene between Nicole and Charlie, and the sparks fly when Driver and Johansson let loose and have at it. This heart-rending clash rendered by two high caliber actors justifies the gimmicky handing out of a packet of free tissues to moviegoers as they entered the Chinese Theatre.


I’ve been a fan of Driver since he contended with the henpecking of Lena Dunham’s self-destructive, nitwit character on HBO’s Girls, who tried to subvert his emerging stardom once Hannah’s boyfriend (also named) Adam obtained lead roles on stage. Driver was also top notch as an undercover cop in Spike Lee’s 2018 BlackkKlansman and a poetry-writing bus driver in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 Paterson, and is presumably raking in the loot from his recurring role in the Star Wars franchise. Like Johansson, he goes back and forth from indies to big budget productions.


From Nicole and Charlie’s argument on Story is pretty gripping, especially another scene when a social worker type (Martha Kelly, of another TV comedy series, Baskets) observes Charlie at home with Henry to evaluate their relationship. What Charlie does is quite startling and. unexpected Although this tale of divorce is skewed by being told from a decidedly male POV, the excellent acting makes it worth sitting through after this tearjerker opens Dec. 6.


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