Baumbach’s second Academy-Award nominated feature begins with a to-camera monologue by Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and then the same from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver), each telling a mediator what they first liked about the other. The close-ups are inter-cut with scenes from the marriage, all undercut by sentimental music which rises to a cloying crescendo whenever we see the couple – either together, or independently- cosseting their over-indulged, bratty son Henry (who, at eight years of age is rewarded with a present each time he ‘poops’).
The mediator to whom the couple are talking (Robert Smigel) is helping them adjust to the end of their marriage, so it is no surprise to find that the things that attracted them to each other, have deteriorated to the things that drive them apart. The apparent bone of contention is Charlie’s adamantine refusal to consider life any place but New York, where he is the owner of a dinky avant-garde New York theatre and, like Baumbach himself, is too involved as writer, director and producer to see the flaws in his creation. Nicole is tired of acting in Charlie’s theatre and wants to return her hometown and the place where she found some fame of her own long ago – Los Angeles. Beneath this of course simmer the real issues which explode in the best scene of the movie, set in an almost empty room, when the couple’s resentful attempt at negotiation escalates to a brutal excoriation of each other.
Charlie and Nicole flounder about for a while, mistakenly thinking that they can “sort things out for themselves”, but Charlie is too self-absorbed and Nicole too spoiled. So lawyers become involved. Good lawyers, who give wise advice in their individual ways. Papa Bear Jay Moratta (Ray Liotta) is too aggressive, Mama Bear Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) is too cuddly, and Baby Bear Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), although just right, is ignored. The husband and wife hide their respective nastiness behind their lawyers, each acting surprised at a judge-mediated meeting when his or her own version of the truth comes out. Even the judge says he can’t handle it and walks out.
The performances are all over the top: Baumbach lets his cast off the leash. The Grand Prize for most ridiculously flappy and hysterical performance of the year goes to Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mother, Sandra. The best of the scenery-chewers are Johansson (mainly seen with swollen eyes and dowdy clothes), Liotta as the $950-an-hour attorney (to paraphrase – “If you have any stupid questions, ring my associate”) and Martha Kelly as an awkward, wooden social worker who evaluates and reports on each household to the court – an invasive and unhelpful process.
One of the few engaging and real moments belongs to Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister, Cassie. Unhappily tasked with serving the Divorce Application on the unsuspecting Charlie at Nicole’s family home, Cassie wavers nervously toward him, hiding the envelope by carrying a pie on top. Bemused, Charlie asks what kind of pie it is. “Pecan” shouts Cassie. At a loss, Charlie asks, “did you bake it?” Cassie responds in confusion, “I don’t know”.
The movie is rife with the kind of scenes beloved of American screenwriters to show us the passage of time in the homey suburban lives of their anything-but-homey-suburban characters – Halloweens feature, heavy on the hearty kitsch. The handsome, overwrought couple own a New York apartment, which we suspect they couldn’t possibly afford, and mooch about in a sanctimonious, privileged gloom. Are we in a Woody Allen movie? It’s hard to care. Like Nora Fanshaw, A Marriage Story is thin and long, competent but not at all original and overdressed.[ED.: Sounds more Kramer vs Kramer than Scenes From a Marriage – too bad. Julie Hagerty has been bad in lots of films – her cameo in Reversal of Fortune comes to mind. Also, Laura Dern just picked up a Best Supporting Oscar, if anyone cares. TVC recommends you read Married Life instead.]
Well, all my friends are now uncoupled,
Yes, they’re all growin’ cold,
Out on work days and on every weekend,
No longer doin’ what they’re told.
Well I looked up from my beer the other night
And I saw an old familiar face,
He said “How are you doin’ Pete my boy?”
“Are you still scribbling at the same old pace?”
I asked him why he looked so smug,
He told me he had left his wife at last,
Held his phone up so I could more easily see
His crop of contacts till I was aghast.
Well sometimes I feel like I’m left behind
And sometimes I feel like I just left school,
But then again I’m smiling, fine, and grown-up,
Maybe: it’s not me that feels the fool…