Director Noah Baumbach's latest packs plenty of strong performances, but we can't help remember superior divorce dramas.
When we meet Charlie and Nicole in “Marriage Story” they seem like a perfect couple.
Adam Driver’s Charlie is a celebrated theater director, and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole is his favorite leading lady. In addition to recently collaborating on a successful production of “Electra,” they’re raising a bright young boy and have an ideal life as artists and parents.
At least, it seems that way, until we realize that the two consecutive monologues we hear about their feelings towards one another are coming from therapy sessions, in which the couple has decided to split.
Once Nicole moves away and hires a powerful attorney (Laura Dern), their mutually satisfying, casual breakup becomes a high stakes legal battle.
Clearly, writer/director Noah Baumbach has seen “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and a handful of Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman dramas that influenced this. There’s even a magazine ad on Johansson and Driver’s characters that sports the headline, “Scenes From a Marriage.” That’s as on-the-nose as the “Ape-pocalypse Now” graffiti message in “War For the Planet of the Apes.”
The characters surrounding the central couple, namely the company of actors and filmmakers in L.A., come across as broad caricatures. Perhaps Baumbach was aiming to use them as a Greek chorus the same way Allen literally had a Greek chorus narrate his “Mighty Aphrodite.” However they were intended, these stock characters come across as artificial and overly mannered.
Randy Newman’s mawkish score is also major problem, sounding more like a parody of a dramatic composition than a straight-faced musical accompaniment. I’ve loved his work before (Newman’s score to “The Paper” is a personal favorite)
This is a case where I wish the film had no music.
Despite my issues with the screenplay and some of the contrivances with the supporting cast, the leads are so good, the film works when it’s just two actors sharing a scene in a single room. It certainly feels stagey, which is likely the point, as theatrical presentation blends in with the realism at hand, with the poisoning of actors and the nature of many scenes (in which the nature of “performance” carries additional meanings) feeling grounded in theater.
Johansson has a lengthy monologue in which she lays out the truth of her longstanding and unhappy marriage. It may be the performance of her career.
Equally on top of his acting game is Driver, who goes to some raw and vulnerable places in portraying an artist whose firm control as a theater maestro vanishes once he leaves the stage.
The supporting cast is full of gems, particularly powerhouse turns from Dern and Ray Liotta as the lawyers representing the couple.
Alan Alda’s moving work, as seemingly the only attorney who actually understands what Charlie is going through, offers a major high point.
So is the funny/surreal sequence in which Charlie’s evening with his son and an unwanted guest goes amazingly bad.
Comedy MVP Julie Hagerty is a joy, as always, playing Nicole’s mother and Wallace Shawn is amusing playing an actor in Charlie’s company, though I’m unsure if he’s playing himself or not.
For all the elements here that are relatable, lived-in and quite powerful (namely a living room fight in which everything that should have remained unsaid is spoken), there is a familiarity to this. The emotions and character turns hit many high notes but the story goes in ways that most will see coming.
Perhaps “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is still too familiar for me.
Despite turning 40 years old this year, that Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep starring groundbreaker looms large. After all, it was a box office blockbuster and won the Best Picture Oscar.
That film has an authenticity and freshness to it (even decades later) that give it more immediacy. As much as I liked “Marriage Story” and loved the performances from just about every cast member, Baumbach’s work kept reminding me of a movie I love so much more.