This is not about hating a film.
It’s just that every so often there is a high-class movie that critics and audiences seem to love and you just don’t get.
At least it starts out that way.
Here’s the deal. You’re watching a movie and there are moments in the first half hour that irk you.
-The actors seem to be trying too hard to make you feel something.
-The story interests you but the choices the characters make feel written, or vague or just plain unbelievable.
-The conflicts scream drama and real-life comic irony. Yet nothing you’re watching has any urgency. These people seem to have it all in a 2019 world where land mines can literally lurk around every corner.
Finally, as you watch all of this unfold you want to run from the theatre screaming to every character appearing in this acclaimed work of artistic brilliance:
Jesus, get a real problem!!!! What would you actually do if crime knocked at your door, your kid got sick, you truly couldn’t pay your bills or even one of the myriad of political issues we see played out on the news daily hit you squarely in the face?
This is all to say, is it enough these days to watch a film that is merely about successful, wealthy characters whose chief challenge in life is a lack of communication with each other and their own super human inability to get out of their own way?
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson poses that question. Decide for yourself after you see it. Or better yet, don’t see it and use the money to contribute to any one of the 7,235 Democratic candidates running for president in 2020.
There have been wonderful movies about the dissolution of a marriage between wealthy, or at least well-off and politically unaffected, couples and the byproduct of pain it inflicts on both their children and themselves.
The haunting Shoot the Moon (1982) comes to mind (Note: Diane Keaton singing the Beatles’ If I Fell in the bathtub. Unforgettable.). More acclaimed and better known are Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) and the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
So you don’t have to be economically pressed or non-white or non-straight to warrant a big screen dramatization of your issues.
The problem with Marriage Story for what will likely be a vocal minority of many of us is, like its protagonists, it tries to have it all and takes no responsibility for its own actions. It’s an overwrought and yet underdeveloped attempt to capture the superficial in a non-superficial way.
It is very loosely based on the dissolution of the real-life marriage of its prolific director-writer Baumbach to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh so one immediately presumes it’s operating from a place of honesty.
Yet some of us will leave the theatre pondering whether what is most difficult is to be honest about ourselves? A second question might be whether what seemed life threatening, dramatic or even black comedy funny to us will register as anything more than Okay, boomer (Note: Feel free to substitute Gen X, Millennial, et al) to anyone else.
It’s not that we don’t at all care about Charlie, an avant-garde turned breakthrough N.Y. theatre director, his wife Nicole, an L.A. bred commercially acclaimed actress who married him and, in the process, rebranded herself as a deeper, more serious thespian. Nor is it that we don’t have feelings for Henry, their adorable if somewhat odd, floppy-haired 8-year-old son whom both parents seem devoted to and truly love.
It’s just, well, what do we do with two people who tell us their problems in long monologues about their lives and feelings, none of which seem pressing enough to justify the drastic decision they’ve made to junk the whole deal? Every marriage has some level of neglect, betrayal, sacrifice and unexpressed anger. So why is it these two people suddenly decide they can’t take it anymore?
Or, as many a writer instructor poses to their classes at least once every semester:
WHY. THIS. DAY?
This story of a marriage becomes a strange juxtaposition of over-explaining the big issues and leaving out the specifics of what would elucidate them. That leaves it in the hands of two very capable actors, the dynamic duo of Driver and Johansson, to work it out for us.
It’s an unfair place to put them in yet each manages to rise to the occasion and create whatever sparks of resonance the story has. They are so game and so committed that it is only the looks on their very raw and very photographable faces that drag the movie over its much hoped for finish line.
Is it interesting to spend half of your viewing time watching the onscreen antics of callow California divorce lawyers? Not to mention, are there still people who think every second person in Los Angeles tries to sell the merits of the city to die hard New Yorkers by constantly proclaiming about our homes and apartments:
But look at all that space!
It’s a 1980s view of the left coast that only someone steeped on the east could write.
Which is not to say that it’s untrue. Nor are numerous other moments. It’s that they’re unchallenged. They hang in the air as facile explanations for behavior rather than offer us lacerating insight as to why.
This is never more exemplified than when Mr. Driver’s Charlie is tasked with performing Being Alive, Stephen Sondheim’s famed eleven o’clock number from Company, in its entirety.
As he sings: But alone, Is alone, Not alive as some sort of tremulous reflection and revelation for a marriage gone bad, we feel for the actor.
But it’s more for him and what he’s managing to pull off in the name of his character. He deserves the Oscar nomination surely coming his way for the herculean task of simply getting through it.
That cannot be said for anything else in the film, speaking for the very vocal minority of us who simply don’t get it.
Tina Turner – “Let’s Stay Together”
I have never seen a Noah Baumbach movie I did not feel this way about. I have always found his films to be grating, dreary, and pretentious and yet they consistently earn great critical acclaim and I am always left wondering everyone else sees in them that I just don’t.
Didn’t realize you felt that way. He’s always been hit and miss for me. But the praise for this is so, so over-the-top, with words like “brilliant” and “landmark” that it’s really sort of mind-boggling. Opinions vary but this is so extreme that it’s kind of confusing. Guess I’ll re-watch “Shoot the Moon.” 🙂
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