It builds to a sensational, illuminating scene between Johansson and Driver, then slips when Driver, who does have a strong singing voice, uses the film to audition for a Broadway musical.
It’s tough to make a film about marriage. You can’t help tossing the blame on one of the parties. Someone is always more of an asshole. Eventually, no matter how one would like to present themselves or how they have conformed to society’s blueprint of personhood or a marriage, along the way people get tired of the pressure to be the best they can be and begin to show their real self. Imagine spending years – day in, day out – acting like a person written by someone else.
You know, the “you” you really know is there, lurking and grasping for air in that sealed container known as “the nice you.” And you let it come out in slippery ways that no one sees. But you know it is the “real” you. Okay. Here is an example: It’s like when a colleague dies and everyone is sad – he was such a great guy! – but you are secretly really, really thrilled he died a horrible death. Frankly, you are overjoyed. You are ecstatic his hospital bill wiped out his life’s savings, leaving his family with a GoFundMe page for his funeral. It’s a secret pleasure for the real you. And it’s proof your curses work.
Or am I revealing too much?
Charlie (Adam Driver) is one of those Brooklyn-based New York storefront playwright/directors whose work is deemed worthy by a very select group of people. The type of people who have the power to nominate someone for a MacArthur Fellowship. As a New Yorker I went to many of these plays. Usually, someone was on stage naked. Charlie is married to Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and they have an eight year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Nicole grew up in California. Her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) was a well-known TV actress and her sister (Merritt Weber) is also an actress.
Nicole had a brief starring film role but left a promising career to move to New York and be Charlie’s muse and leading lady. As the founder of a theater and the playwright/director, the focus began to evolve around Charlie. Everyone in the troupe wants to win his favor. He is the element that will propel their theatrical careers.
Nicole has been turning down random Hollywood offers but still keeps a lane open. When she is offered an opportunity to go to Hollywood to do a pilot, she knows Charlie will refuse to join her. It’s been all about him, his career, his ambition, his goals. The offer of spending some time with her mother and sister in California and her dreams, leads to a confrontation: Nicole wants to take Henry to California and wants a divorce. Marriage counseling fails. Nicole acts like a bitch. Charlie is a great dad and is not an egotistical, fame-seeking, Christopher Marlowe-sprouting blowhard. No one fawns over him.
I have never been a fan of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s work. He has acknowledged that MARRIAGE STORY is semi-autobiographical. Baumbach went through a divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh after marrying in 2005. Baumbach and Leigh collaborated in 2007 on MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and in 2010 they co-wrote the movie GREENBERG starring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig. In 2010, just seven months after the birth of their only child Rohmer, Leigh filed for divorce seeking full custody of their son with visitation rights for Baumbach. Coincidentally, Baumbach began dating Gerwig in 2010. If it wasn’t for Leigh’s participation in writing GREENBERG, would her husband have spent so much time with Gerwig? Jennifer Jason Leigh – with a film career spanning decades, you should have known about the seductive allure of a winsome neophyte seeking a mentor. In 2019, Baumbach and Gerwig had a son.
In MARRIAGE STORY, Baumbach’s Charlie is the injured party. He is a devoted, loving father who wants to be with his son, regardless of the cost and jeopardy of his Broadway career. His one-night fling with an intern is meaningless. Charlie is the sympathetic victim of a career-driven woman.
Charlie and Nicole’s aspirational, creative un-coupling quickly comes undone when Nicole hires uber-lawyer, the cutthroat divorce maven Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). You have heard the tales of Hollywood A-List actresses hiring renowned serpent-handling female divorce attorneys. Fanshaw uses the Queen of Diamonds card to design an attack that will leave Charlie without parental rights, a career, and giving Nicole half of his MacArthur money.
Fanshaw gives Nicole the full elite Hollywood hug-and-sympathy experience, allowing Nicole to express the depth of her unhappiness. Johansson, who rightly deserves a Best Actress nomination, delivers the first of two brilliant scenes.
With two pivotal scenes in MARRIAGE STORY, Johansson’s skill as a first-class actress is finally on display.
Forced to hire a L.A. attorney, Charlie meets with Jay (Ray Liotta), who demonstratively dictates the First Rule of L.A. Divorce: The financial reality. His fee is $995 an hour; his assistant’s fee is $450 a hour, so all stupid questions should be directed to the assistant.
With the lawyers prepared to swallow up Charlie’s five-year MacArthur’s Golden Ticket and Nicole’s TV series money, and with $995 per hour running the clock, there is no settling up. Charlie and Nicole meet and their “talk” escalates into a harrowing, cruel truth-telling fight that buries any hope of reconciliation.
It is brilliant, astonishing, and one of the best scenes of 2019.
Adam Driver has worked several times with Baumbach and is clearly the director’s alter-ego (if the director was tall, had rich hair, and sexual charisma). I was all in until Driver was given a singing showcase. Well, Johansson had her singing scene, so it’s only fair. Driver does have a strong voice but, along with Johansson’s singing, was clearly intentional solely as a gift to the actors. Was this meant to be their auditions for Broadway musicals?
Adam Driver has established himself on Broadway and most recently garnered terrific reviews in Burn This. But is it really those big Broadway musicals that are the prestige jewels in the career tiara? Does every actor long for Hugh Jackman’s singing, dancing and acting career path?
Unless Baumbach is hell-bent on shaming a particular person, Hagerty’s obnoxious, space-oddity performance nearly kills the tone of the movie. The only thing missing from Sandra is a deck of Tarot cards and a aluminum halo. Sandra leaps into Charlie’s arms and her frenetic screeching throws the entire film off-balance. What happened here? Is this the result of owing someone a favor or a spite portrayal of a hated enemy?
Special mention must go to Ray Liotta for a wonderful, dazzling but too brief appearance. It’s one of those small parts that highlight and ignite a movie. Liotta now has a new persona that I am sure we will be seeing more of.