Oscar Nominations 2020 – FILM REVIEW: Marriage Story (2019)

Dir: Noah Baumbach

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score.

Score: ★★★★☆

Writer / Director Noah Baumbach’s comfort zone is with those people and families that are financially well off enough that they have time to think about how shitty things are and actually have time to emotionally express them. Without the financial privilege  afforded to Baumbach’s characters, like in the cinema of Woody Allen, most characters would just simply be too busy to spend the time letting the emotional ache and intellectual conundrums of personal relationships, (in this case the break down of one) show. Some people would label Baumbach’s movies a little bit bourgeois, but not every film can or should be about truly working class homes or those scratching around the bread line. In the multiplicity of cinematic universe’s available, the one that leaves it’s characters financially stable enough to explore parts of the human psyche many people simply don’t have the time to indulge. Movies like this can show us what it is like if we have a little too much time, and comfort to really ponder our inner thoughts and not just throw them to back of our minds as we tackle the next practical task. In the world of cinema of course Baumbach’s characters don’t come across as especially rich, in fact they often have money concerns (people often grow to fill the space they have in life) but if you met them in real life you’d think they were rich. What giving the characters a bit of upper middle classness does is free them to think more about their emotional inner life and express more the corners of their mind that would otherwise (sometimes wisely), remain left unsaid. It’s almost a cinematic trick freeing the writer to literally swim around in their own existential neurosis through the lives of their reasonably well off and often well educated characters.

Divorce with a child involved is explored in Marriage Story.

While some may label it self indulgent, I’d say sometimes art should be self indulgent. What’s more I do believe Baumbach’s characters are actually pretty accurate to their situations in movies like The Squid and The Whale and Margot At The Wedding, with their sometimes snobbish foibles and temper tantrums. Life for some is like that, and for others those feelings exist but never get a chance to blossom. Sometimes it’s worth seeing what life is like on the other side, either as a humbling experience, or in this case as something more of a cautionary tale. But all that gives the idea that you watch this movie with a view to the central character’s wealth, but in reality you don’t because in movies  ‘normal’ people often are richer than their real life equivalents. Every Jennifer Aniston comedy etc. has them living in nice house with a big kitchen. That’s how movies are, so it isn’t distracting here, if anything it’s gently mocked. One thing is clear, as a writer / director Baumbach lays his soul bare.

Johansson and Driver on opposites sides of the aisle.

The movie chiefly centres on a couple going through a divorce, and we join them at the point this decision has been put to bed. They are getting a divorce, that is settled. But how to navigate that in the modern world? Particularly when one partner Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) wants to lead a new and different life in L.A., and Charlie (Adam Driver) wants to stay in New York where his theatre company is based, and of course there is a child involved. Two other people might have been able to settle this whole affair a bit more easily than our protagonists, but then some might have handled it a whole lot worse. People often get too wrapped up in their own wants and needs at times like this, and Baumbach devastatingly expresses the inner yearnings and complaints of both leads with brutal honesty. But it never descends into juvenile behaviour, although like in real life, things do occasionally get a bit farcical. Especially when divorce lawyers get involved (who’da thunk it?). Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the off Broadway actor, a woman who has deferred to her husband’s status as theatre director at the expense of her own ambition to direct, and now wants to make a change. Driver is even better as the husband simply trying to make everyone in the situation happy, including (not unreasonably) himself. No one here is really the baddie, no one is really at fault, except they are both at fault. They are both equally innocent parties and indeed are both the guilty parties. They have both unknowingly wandered into this situation simply by the virtue of trying to do what they thought was best at the time. Neither one is, or has been particularly selfish, but by the same token neither has fully understood the position of their partner and over time this does damage and is it’s own brand of selfishness.

Driver’s powerful performance is expertly pitched.

Driver is earth shatteringly brilliant at times. His performance hits so many different notes whilst all seeming to come from the same tapestry of a single human being. It’s really Oscar worthy stuff, and a million times better than (this year’s awards darling) Phoenix’s showy, hollow, surface only, pure aesthetic of Joker, mostly because Driver’s role is well written and Phoenix’s character is barely there on the page. But also because Driver really gets his teeth into his role, it’s quite a remarkable performance. Three supporting cast members in the shape of two slimy divorce lawyers and one relatively normal human who happens to work in the field, are all brilliantly rendered by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, all three are excellent. Laura Dern especially so, who has the most deliciously ludicrous role out of the three.

Laura Dern is wonderful as a Hollywood divorce lawyer.

Marriage Story continues the run of one of American cinema’s most wryly comedic, emotionally piercing directors whose back catalogue is shaping up as one of the great statements of truly modern cinema about humans. Indie, familial cinema brought to it’s fullest expression. This being the third time Baumbach has worked with Driver, he has seemingly having become Baumbach’s muse, since his real life partner and film collaborator Greta Gerwig has become busy with her own Oscar nominated projects. It seems like Baumbach and Gerwig have navigated the exact same dilemmas more successfully than Marriage Story’s fictional duo. But it’s fair to say that there is so much razor sharp observance some of it must have been taken from life. Maybe that is doing Baumbach a disservice as a writer, because after this film, I am once again left in no doubt, Baumbach is a creative force to be reckoned with.

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