MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nicole has already made her decision. The film opens with her and husband Charlie in a therapy session. They are listing traits they admire about the other person. Watching this, we are unsure if the therapist thinks this exercise might salvage a broken marriage, or if it’s some cruel way of highlighting what is being lost. This is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most gut-wrenching film to date, and it’s based, at least partially, on his split from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Writing about personal experience is nothing new for Baumbach, as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was inspired by his parents’ divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming theatre director in New York City, and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the company’s lead actor. When Nicole informs Charlie that she wants a divorce, and is headed back home to Los Angeles to be with family and resume her TV acting career, he is stunned. She explains that her dreams and ambitions have been stifled by focusing on his career, and despite her numerous attempts to discuss this, he has never bothered to take her seriously. Oh, and she’s taking their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

What follows is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, editing, and human nature. We watch as Nicole builds the foundation of her new life, while Charlie is staggered – not so much in denial, as disbelief. Their initial course of an amicable split, equitable division of belongings, and shared/split custody of Henry is abruptly altered when Nicole takes counsel from powerhouse LA divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce and California laws. This forces Charlie to meet with attorney Bert Spitz (a terrific Alan Alda), who may or may not be up to the task – his acumen varying from day to day.

Baumbach allows both sides to play out. These are basically normal, good people in a situation that brings out the worst traits in both. Unsparing pain arises at every turn. One particular argument between Charlie and Nicole is the axis on which the movie turns. It’s a spilling of guts and filled with devastating honesty. The scene is relentless and builds to a breakdown or breakthrough … any description leaves us spent. Just when we don’t believe we can handle any more emotional turmoil, up pops a moment of genuine tenderness that restores our faith – even if it’s only long enough for us to breathe again. There are even some surprisingly funny (dark humor) moments sprinkled throughout, just as there is in life.

Supporting roles are filled beautifully by Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver and Wallace Shawn. As Henry, Azhy Robertson avoids the “cute-kid” syndrome and delivers an actual nuanced performance by a child actor. Although it seems they are both everywhere these days, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Driver are truly outstanding in their roles here. Scarlet perfectly captures a woman moving on, while Adam singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at the bar in front of his theatre company is one of the most poignant on screen moments of the year.

There have been some amazing movies about marriage/divorce over the years. Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), Benton’s KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979), and Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011) come to mind. Baumbach’s latest belongs in that group. Even the “best” divorces – those where both sides end up better off – are a “loss” for both parties. At a minimum, it’s a loss of a once-in-time vision of life partnership. The division of assets is a cold term for the shredding of emotions. We are fine with whatever the adults decide as long as the priority for both is their young son who shouldn’t pay the price for their debacle … but certainly will, just as countless other children have. I’m only now able to write about this film after seeing it at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF). As a movie lover, I’m in awe of the acting and storytelling. As a human being, it temporarily destroyed me.

watch the trailer:


MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)

August 27, 2015

mistress america Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has quite the track record of human nature commentary with his films: The Squid and the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012). The conversations he writes on the page are somehow at once both realistic and stagey when they reach the big screen. It’s like his characters speak the way we think, rather than the way we actually talk outloud … and this makes for some awkward scenes. Awkward, but no less insightful.

Mr. Baumbach’s real life partner, co-writer and lead actress Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an eternally optimistic just-turned-30 New Yorker who is never without a new idea, but unfortunately lacks the follow-through gene. Prior to meeting Brooke, we are introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke, who was so memorable in Gone Girl). Tracy is a misfit college freshman who quickly latches on to the much more exciting life of Brooke, and sees her as a combination mentor and limitless source of material for her short stories.

The first part of the film allows us to get a real feel for both Tracy and Brooke, but it’s the change of pace that occurs when the setting hits a house in the wealthy area of Connecticut that is most startling. This portion is a modern day screwball comedy in the mold of Hawks and Sturges. The conversation cadence throughout the film is offbeat, but it’s here that the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue pacing really pushes the viewer to keep up. Some of the funniest lines aren’t the dominant ones in a scene, forcing us to juggle overlapping characters and sub-plots. It’s really quite fun … and showcases some nice support work from Michael Chernus, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

Even the “slower” first segment has some stellar writing including an explanation of “X” in Algebra tutoring, and a college freshman coming to grips with what makes a writer (it’s not the looks). Baumbach and Gerwig have a knack for creating whiney people who talk (incessantly) their way through the process of assembling pieces of the universe. Some might call this the painful process of maturity, but it seems to also include learning the difference between acting happy, real happiness, and acceptance of one’s life.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


FRANCES HA (2013)

May 30, 2013

frances ha1 Greetings again from the darkness. All the critics are raving about it. Love abounds for the latest from director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer and leading lady Greta Gerwig. What makes my ambivalence even more confounding is that I’m a fan of Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Gerwig (Greenberg). The expert level of filmmaking and acting is obvious, the script details and dialogue are exceptional, and the situations and setting are realistic. So why aren’t I more excited about this one? That’s what I’ve spent the past few days wondering.

It seems Frances Ha delivers everything I look for in an indie film. The problem is that I find almost every character to be annoying and self-absorbed. The first act finds Frances (Gerwig) sitting on top of the world. She has a boyfriend, a frances ha2BFF/roomie, and is a dance company apprentice with the expectation of a dance career. Soon enough she watches Strike Three go by and her world is in a tailspin. We then watch Frances trudge on through uncertainty and instability in living arrangements, personal relationships and career path. It plays like a road trip that really never hits the highway.

Frances moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Ben (Michael Zegen) and she is oblivious to Ben’s interest as she obsesses about her former BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). See, Sophie is trying to grow up while Frances wants to stay in her dream land where she and Sophie remain “the same person with different hair“. Frances then crashes at the apartment of a fellow dancer played with all seriousness by Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter). The two dancing opposites attend an awkward frances ha3dinner party at which Frances manages to spew an endless stream of absurd remarks that advertise her lack of maturity. Her response to this is to take a spontaneous trip to Paris … charged to a new credit card.

Make no mistake. Frances is a very energetic and sincere free-spirited twenty-seven year old. The kind that is only charming in the movies. If her quirk wins you over, you will find yourself rooting for her to get her life together. That would put you in the same corner as most other film critics. On the other hand, if you recognize the optimism, but are unmoved by the immaturity and self-absorption, then you are banished to the corner of those who “just don’t get it”. And I’ll be right there with you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can revel in the quirky world of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and find joy in a flirtateous take on Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: annoyingly self-centered people talking a lot about themselves and other things of which they know little, inspires you to request a refund.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqMaeBtK9TA

 

 

 


GREENBERG (2010)

March 29, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Warning: this is one of the artsy-fartsy type movies that bore many, but energize me.  Noah Baumbach wrote and directed the excellent The Squid and the Whale, and it is with Greenberg that he really makes a statement as an independent filmmaker to anticipate. The second gem is always the most elusive. That said, I am not sure I can recommend this movie to very many people, despite all the good things I am about to write.

This is the first Ben Stiller role that actually seems to fit him. His typical role is as a punchline. Here, as Greenberg, he is not one bit likable.  He plays a guy who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and is now house-sitting for his rich brother, who is on a family vacation in Vietnam. Throughout the movie, Greenberg states he is concentrating on doing “nothing” right now. Of course, that is his defense mechanism for being unable to connect or communicate with any real person. Yes, that sounds bleak … and it is. Yet, it is also fascinating and thought-provoking.

Despite Stiller’s strong turn, Greta Gerwig (as Florence) proves to be the heart of the story. She is the family assistant to Greenberg’s brother and finds herself oddly attracted to Greenberg’s vulnerable state. This is my first exposure to Ms. Gerwig and I find her fascinating as an actress. She has a natural openness on-screen and is certainly no glamour-gal. Instead she comes across as a very real 25-year-old trying to make sense of life – especially her own.

In addition to Ms. Gerwig, Rhys Ifans provides outstanding support work as Greenberg’s long ago band mate. This is the polar opposite of Ifan’s character in The Boat that Rocked as here is just a guy putting together a grown up life for himself. He struggles with the adjustment, but accurately depicts how our daily choices can make or break us.

I am not sure whether to categorize this as a character study or just an exquisitely written series of scenes that hit the nail on the head. One of the best scenes of the film is when Stiller meets up with Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s real life wife) and she immediately rebuffs his reconciliation attempts. They had been a couple briefly 15 years ago and she has obviously moved on, while he has not. Excellent film-making.

The best way I can describe Greenberg the character is that he is a compilation of the dark thoughts that we all experience from time to time … a desire to do nothing, wanting to be blunt and direct, dreams of recapturing the magic of youth, and of course, writing complaint letters for everything wrong in the world. Obviously, most of us spend very little real time on these things, but that is the Greenberg character. Let’s keep an eye on Mr. Baumbach – he may just be the real deal.