Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

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 needs me too much.
Somebody knows 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.
– Being Alive

While We’re Young (2015)

whilewere2“It’s the Goonies and Citizen Kane. They don’t distinguish between high and low.” ~ Ben Stiller as Jamie

Although not nearly as prolific, in some respects Noah Baumbach feels like a lesser heir apparent to Woody Allen, if in fact the veteran filmmaker ever stops making films. Nevertheless, Baumbach seems to have a knack for a similar cross-section of New York. Frances Ha is his Annie Hall with the cinematography of an updated Manhattan. Also, his characters are more often than not middle-class intellectuals. People who think, have deep conversations, and yet there still manages to be something funny or different about what they have to say.

While We’re Young begins something like this. There’s a middle-aged couple stuck in neutral scared out of their minds about kids, and at the same time scared of growing older all alone with just the two of them. They have some good friends, who now have a child, and now Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel lonely. Then, they meet Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and Jamie (Adam Driver) and phase two begins.

Baumbach proves he really is a different creature entirely, and While We’re Young embodies that with its progression. It’s not quite what we expect. It’s refreshing, lithe, and friendly. Hold that thought. Maybe that’s actually exactly what we wanted and expected — at least for now.

Very quickly these two couples connect on so many levels despite their vast age difference. The old ones feel young and the young ones are really old souls guided by free spirits. They live life as they please without the drudgery that Josh and Cornelia feel weighed down by.

He’s been working on the same documentary for eight years now with the same talking head (Peter Yarrow), and he and Cornelia have hardly been out of the house, much less the country, in the last several years. To make matters worst he feels like he’s living in the shadow of his highly-successful father-in-law (Charles Grodin). In utter contrast, Jamie imbues so much passion it’s hard for Josh to not to latch onto that.

Their friendship blossoms in such a way that Josh and Cornelia almost seem unrecognizable with their hip-hop and fedoras. It’s not obvious quite yet whether that’s a good or a bad sign. But of course, the story doesn’t end that way. Because that’s not life, or at least not the way of real life outside of the world of filmmakers and documentarians.

Darby and Jamie aren’t the perfect young couple they seem to be. Their mish-mash of culture and public domain mentality has a downside. It gets worse than just the Goonies and Citizen Kane. After all, what are we supposed to expect? Two people who build their own furniture, make ice cream for a living, and live off old records and VHS cassettes have faults too.

Something happens that shakes Josh and the audience out of their reverie. In fact, everyone is brought back to earth. The world is often full of lies or worse yet half-truths. Unfortunately, we have to learn to accept them even when it feels so unjust. Joshie learns a valuable lesson about humanity and the younger generations. They aren’t evil and they are far from perfect.

In its finality, While We’re Young wasn’t the pretty picture that we half-expected. In fact, it got downright weird, dark, and deceptive, before giving way to apathy.  But that’s okay. Life doesn’t always end there. There’s often a hopeful epilogue and so it goes with Josh and Cornelia.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances_Ha_poster“You look older but a lot less grown up…” 

People as diverse as Buddy the Elf, Holly Golightly, and Annie Hall call New York their stomping ground and along with these iconic figures comes Frances Halladay. Her bubble does extend to France and California, but New York is really her home base. In Noah Baumbach’s film, we follow this enigma as her address constantly changes, and she strives to follow her dream of becoming a professional dancer. We are allowed time to examine and analyze her in all sorts of situations because plot usually gives way to various asides showcasing the free spirit who is Frances.

She worries about money, can’t pay rent, wants to play fight with her best friend, and is a self-proclaimed “undateable.” She acts like a five-year-old one moment and yet has an almost unknowing beauty about her.  In other words, she’s a real winner. We cannot help but fall in love with her since she wins us over with all her oddities from beginning to end. Her friend Sophie cannot stay mad at her forever either. It’s just not possible. They have to make up.

Frances settles down one final time, after trying her hand rather successfully at choreography and moving back to Washington Heights. There we get one last little nugget. We finally can chuckle knowingly about the title of this film. It’s so Frances and it’s the perfect cherry on top of the sundae.

In the tradition of New York films, Baumbach’s effort has a visual style that was meant to hearken back to the austere black & white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). In some sense, it acts as another character altogether. Whether he is pandering to us or not, there is no doubt that I am a sucker for the cinematography and it made things just a little bit more magical.

Thankfully Greta Gerwig helped craft this script and in her character, she found the perfect paradox. An individual so extremely quirky, but still somehow believable in the same instance. Her foibles and pratfalls only help to solidify her character in our mind. The fact is that each of us probably knows some variation of Frances. Those individuals who dance to a different drum and give every single day that they live on this earth a certain degree of pizzazz. I speak for all the cautious, rationally minded human beings out there. We need the Frances Has to make us laugh and to shake up our normality at least a little bit.

4/5 Stars