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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Review: Marriage Story (spoilers only in the broadest sense)

There are many wonderful things in Marriage Story. The acting is excellent. It is the best photographed film in Noah Baumbach directorial filmography. There are great lines. Baumbach shows a mastery of verbal runs, both in dialogue and monologue.

But after seeing it twice and pushing away some of its problems – which may be my problems that are unfair to put on the filmmaker’s work – I still feel like there is a giant hole in the middle of this work.

Why is this couple getting divorced?

I can accept that in this era of more than fifty-percent of marriages ending in divorce that couples often just shrug their shoulders when they aren’t feeling “it” anymore and move on. But that is not what Baumbach seems to think of his characters. They are very, very specific and deliberate people. This is one of the big strengths of the film.

So when they choose to divorce without really working on their marriage, in spite of having an eight(?)-year-old child, I am not okay with that. As much as I like both of these characters, I am not a fan of people who decide to explore their personal needs at the cost of an elementary school child unless they have gone very, very far to try to make it work.

And the very start of this film tells us about all the reasons to try to make it work… and then one half of the couple simply decides she doesn’t feel like making the effort. And I can understand having had enough of a relationship and wanting to escape. I am pretty sure that everyone who has ever been married longer than 5 years knows the feeling. And I suppose if you don’t have a kid, no harm, no foul. But if you do…

I’m not judging everyone who divorces with children. Quite the opposite, really. Because everyone I know who has gotten a divorce after having a kid has, in real life, really fought to try to make it work and fought and fought and just had to end it eventually. Divorce is the right choice for a lot of people.

But if this couple did the work, it isn’t in this movie.

I spent time after this film wondering whether the intention Baumbach brought to this was to make a no-fault divorce movie and that these characters were stand-ins for anyone experiencing this moment. But I couldn’t convince myself. The characters are too clear and specific.

The first time I saw the film, I felt that Baumbach had really leaned the script in his own male direction. I felt that way less the second time. But still, in the end, she is a bit shallow and selfish and finds it much easier to move on from this marriage. She is the one who really made the decision and he never gets a conversation, much less a vote.

He has his own flaws. It’s not completely one-sided. But when it comes to the summing up, she sings the little ditty as one of three girls who are hooking up with the same guy and he gets to sing the epic ballad of a man who has finally come to the truth in his life that he wants more than having fun, being free, and avoiding responsibility. So you tell me.

Baumbach is a delightful writer. There is a verbal showdown at one point in the film and it is a brilliant piece of writing and performance… lyrical and musical. Alan Alda’s gentle divorce lawyer and Laura Dern’s brutal one are undeniable. Julie Hagerty is a joy to behold. Baumbach gets the awkwardness of the son when stuck between the parents pretty perfect.

But again, I feel like I came to the movie with too many ideas. There is a trick-or-treating sequence that is just not reality. Not in a world with iPhones. Not in an empty neighborhood three blocks up the hill from Santa Monica Boulevard’s Halloween mania. It’s almost signature Baumbach that he didn’t take the effort of a father desperate to excite his kid and let him make the mistake of taking an under-10 into Boy’s Town on Halloween and have to explain some awkward things while embracing the joy of the scene. Or even making the active choice to go up the hill (to a dead neighborhood) instead of down to the wildness.

I’m not looking for a hero and a villain. Maybe it’s my problem with much of Baumbach’s work… it screams of daring, but is ultimately extremely careful. It’s probably why Margot At The Wedding is my favorite directorial work of his… because it doesn’t cut away from the brutality when the brutality comes.

Marriage Story is a series of moments from a divorce (after a lovely four minutes that are all the scenes from a happy marriage we are going to get) that all ring true, but not so much when connected. He does asshole divorce lawyers great. He does the ambivalence of separating great. He does trying to focus on two different things of near-equal importance at the same time great.

And then he will take a flight of fancy to the point that it must be metaphor because no regular person is that silly and the movie resets for me. A bunch of times. It was quite frustrating.

I don’t dislike Marriage Story. There are too many good things in it for that. There are moments of greatness. But Baumbach is one of those filmmakers who tantalizes with the possibility of true greatness. And he has made a very accessible movie, but perhaps at the cost of that greatness. I keep seeing his films. I keep seeing the signs. I keep hoping with all of my heart.

For those who know Sondheim’s “Company,” this couple is all “Barcelona.” But the movie doesn’t seem to want to admit it. Doo doo doo doo doot doo… it could drive a critic crazy… it could drive a critic mad.

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5 Responses to “Review: Marriage Story (spoilers only in the broadest sense)”

  1. MarkVH says:

    Nice, measured review, Dave. I have a feeling the discourse around this movie could get really ugly, and I feel like you came at it from a really thoughtful perspective.

  2. spassky says:

    Dave, I enjoyed your review (seeing Marriage Story at the Paris tonight, but largely agree with your criticisms of baumbach’s oeuvre), though I feel there is a moralism in it that I find to be potentially distressing. However, the believability of character motives is a fine way of approaching objective critical assessment with film. As an extension of this, I agree with Mark– the conversation around this movie could become very ugly. I lay that on Baumbach’s shoulders though– he doesn’t make films for people; Baumbach makes films for rich white people who were raised rich and for whom divorce is a line item in the emotional invoice they carry with them to the next Q&A at Metrograph. There is little that is truly ugly in his films– and when there is, it is held at arm’s length. There is something to the Romantic ideal of seeing beauty in everything, but at the heart of this is a solipsism and elite comfort that can in a way invalidate any earnest attempt at authenticity in several elements of his films.

    I love “Meyerowitz Stories”, but I think at this point there is no denying that Baumbach is incapable of not only making a film outside of his bubble, but a film that even engages with ideas outside of that bubble.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    For me Baumbach peaked with The Squid in the Whale. Haven’t enjoyed anything he’s made since then nearly as much. Meyerowitz Stories did nothing for me. Admired the performances but that’s it. Didn’t like the movie at all. Just not a big Baumbach fan. Also I saw someone say that they’d love the Jennifer Jason Leigh side of the story and couldn’t help but chuckle.

  4. spassky says:

    Hot take: Adam Driver is one of the most overrated actors of all time. A manufactured brooding that is so studied and boring (at least Dean was a campy little queen doing it). His quirks are so ho-hum, particularly for anyone under 40. (a recent profile of him where Baumbach obsesses with how he says “ah-mazing” and I can only remember the hundreds of whisper creaks of this word after a shot of 99 bananas in university). I really do believe it’s only because he doesn’t look like Channing Tatum.

  5. Spassky says:

    Eating my words. Wept at the penultimate scene of Driver reading the letter. Movie delivers.

    I do think the film has a problem of framing Johannsen as a capricious, manipulative brat. I think they could have handled laying into the narcissism of Driver’s character a bit more.

    What I think the first scene doesn’t quite make clear enough is that those letters were intended for therapy. I think that would have dealt with the fall off from seemingly happy marriage to train wreck fairly well.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon