Monday, December 9, 2019

Great acting amidst head-banging plot

I wanted to like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story for a number of reasons. Baumbach is one of my favorite contemporary directors with on point works about modern mores in films like The Squid and the Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2013) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). If there is one director who captures the essence of the moods, interests and values of the contemporary American intellectual it’s Baumbach. And with one of today’s foremost actresses, Scarlett Johansson, as well as the seemingly everywhere Adam Driver the movie showcases some of today's very top talent.  Sprinkle in such perennial favorites as Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Wallace Shawn and this movie is so appetizing you can almost taste it. But after viewing its 136-minute length on the big screen (courtesy WIFF’s monthly series at the Capitol Theatre; the film is now on Netflix) I came away not filled with brilliant portraits of erudite characters’ contradictions and life’s cul-de-sac moments but of being beaten blow-by-blow by a very ugly divorce case. Having said that, there is a lot of greatness in this film. Without exception the acting is superlative. Johansson as Nicole Barber is amazing in portraying her mood swings – often contained in long shots – such as when describing her marriage in a first meeting to lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Dern as Fanshaw  herself gives a wholly brilliant performance as a take-no-prisoners counsel who also polemically targets the state of divorce procedures and power imbalance between men and women.   And there’s Adam Driver, “Mr.Nuance” with a thousand inner feelings that emerge in warmth, despair, anger and pain. In the plot, Driver as Charlier Barber, is a Brooklyn theatre director who’s ambitious and successful. But his wife Nicole Barber, a one time Hollywood screen actress, feels she’s playing second fiddle. She longs to move back to California. The marriage increasingly breaks down and before we know it both spouses are meeting lawyers and Driver in particular faces tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Which raises some questions. How come we don’t see Nicole’s lawyer’s bills? In fact, the onus is all on Driver to prove he’s a reliable father to get custody and he has to rent an apartment in LA. So, despite Fanshaw’s treatise about gender discrimination, is the movie unwittingly portraying how men are in fact the ones discriminated against by the courts? Politics aside, the plot descends into somewhat predictable bitterness and outright anger, ironically for two people who still have positive feelings for one another.  All this, again, is fine acting. The problem is that, for the audience, it starts to  become head-pounding and probably quite uncomfortable for anyone who in fact has gone through a divorce.

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