But… Why?: A Movie Story

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.

Uh oh — the Chair is about to get real

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? 

No comment (but really, comment)

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.

Except this guy. No one should give money to this guy.

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).

Boyhood also fits the bill

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.

Ehhhhh… maybe?

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.

Sounds…. fascinating.  #vanilla  #very

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?

Is she thinking what I’m thinking? #butwhy

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! 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love you, Laura Dern #youdeservebetter

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.

ADAM DRIVER SINGS?!

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”

Is The Irishman why we go to the movies?

After spending three and a half hours seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, financed by Netflix, at a screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, there are lots of thoughts and feelings to be sorted out.

None of these have to do with the future of film exhibition or whether Netflix is justified in its release pattern for the new Scorsese film.  For those who don’t know, that would be only eight theatres in NY and LA this week, followed by additional movie screens in more cities seven days later and, finally, its streaming debut just ten days after that (Nov. 27) for anyone with a Netflix subscription or the ability to hop on to someone else’s account.

Netflix is so needy #validation

Scorsese, who turns 77 years old on Nov. 17, is one of THE best American filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries, or any century.  Yeah, he’s publicly expressed his disinterest in superhero films and sounded the alarm bells about a money guzzling, tent-pole-driven, market-researched-to-death movie industry obsessed with the Marvel/DC Universe at the expense of cinema dealing with humans and the complexity and nuance of their emotions.

But, for the record, he’s right about that.  Most of us would tire of potato chips and chocolate bars if we ate them 75% of the time.  Even if we didn’t, think of the affect it would have not only on our bodies but our souls, assuming it already hasn’t.

Avengers: Age of Gluttony

Point being, Scorsese not only has a good argument about what passes for present-day cinema but has earned the right to grouse.  For Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, New York, New York, The Aviator, Casino and The Departed alone, he can opine from now until the end of time about what displeases him and/or makes him happy about any one group of films or the movie industry in general.

also thank you for this gif

Which makes one wonder if the same goes for his audience.  If you’ve been a Scorsese admirer and mostly loyal fan all these years, do you have the right to be disappointed in the latest entry into the master’s oeuvre that everyone else seems to be calling brilliant?

Well, of course you have the right.  This is still a free(ish) country.  But is it called for, or even worth it to bring up?

Yeah, it is.

Oh there’s more…

Movies by their very nature are a communal experience.  Sure, many of us now too often watch in the confines of our own homes, and too often do it alone.  But the cinema Scorsese makes and presents is shared with others in a dark room where it’s then debated and dissected afterwards.  It’s part of the gift he’s given us for over half a century and to ignore real life discussion of a new Scorsese film would be like negating the very existence of the artist himself.

So here’s the thing…

Is that Ray Romano?

The Irishman is extremely well made, brilliantly acted and doubtless couldn’t be directed better by anyone else on the planet.  But it’s as cold as a tray of ice cubes on a bleak winter’s day and about as revelatory and/or insightful.

Ouch, Chairy!

After 209 minutes it’s difficult to not wonder aloud, Why did I just spend all of this time watching this?  What did this film tell me that I didn’t already know?  In what way was I touched, repelled or even slightly moved by the lives of these “wise guys” and the people around them?  (Note: Not to mention, I already knew the Mob murdered Jimmy Hoffa!!!).

This is especially true if you’ve ever seen a mob film by Scorsese.  Or watched one in that genre by his friend and contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola.  Or even binge watched the HBO series The Sopranos.

Don’t drag me into this! #cuttoblack

It’s unfair to say that with The Irishman Scorsese has made his version of a sequel to a sequel of his latest superhero film.  The Irishman has many flaws (Note: Despite what the critics are saying), but once it reaches the three-hour mark it forges some new ground.  In its last half hour, one begins to realize why the director spent all of these years trying to make this story and why it is likely the final chapter of every mob story he has ever told.

You can trust the Chair

But suffice it to say that dark and foreboding as it might be, that third act ending doesn’t so much surprise as simply…play out.  It takes you down a road you didn’t expect to see onscreen but pretty much could have imagined would have happened exactly that way off screen.

Would you have imagined it, if left to your own devices?  The answer is probably not if you weren’t a contemporary of Scorsese.  So in that sense, it does play in to the director’s own definition of cinema and, in its way, far surpasses anything you will see in the latest Marvel/DC superhero film.   Which is not to say it is Scorsese, or even cinema, at its best.

God, he’s so rich

There are many different reasons why we go to the movies.  Though let’s qualify that to reflect a 2019 reality.  There are many different reasons why we watch movies.

Escape comes to mind.  File this under the category of general entertainment.  We want to laugh and forget or, if we are addicted to catharsis, we want (and need) to cry and commiserate.

I already know I’ll be a disaster during this movie

Perhaps we want to feel superior to a person or class of people being portrayed onscreen.  Taken one step further, we might even joyfully hate watch something we know will be hopelessly dumb, awful or not to our taste just because we can, especially if we’re the type that has no empathy for its own highly overpaid craftspeople boring us.  (Note: Rest assured the latter also includes ALL of its above-the-line talent [nee actors, producers, writers AND directors] despite what they might say or admit to in interviews.  Though this should never, ever include Scorsese or anyone of his caliber).

But mostly, many of us go to and/or watch movies simply because we are true blue fans, Scorsese or otherwise.

… and for the popcorn #arteriesclogging #delicious

We hope for the best, realize we may be disappointed and yet still are pleased that we saw it.  Some but not all of us in that category can usually find something to like in almost anything, even if it’s the good intentions of those who might have let us down.   (Note: See a few paragraphs above). More importantly, there is always a chance we will see something we like, perhaps even love, and be transported.

And for that experience, we will be grateful, perhaps forever grateful.

With so many other ways to spend our time these days there is still nothing quite like sitting in the dark (or semi-dark, or even light) and watching someone else’s idea of life unfold.  For a short time we get to feel something we might have never felt before, or in that particular way

I have a lot of feelings, OK?!?!

There are Scorsese films where we have that for a few fleeting moments, for numerous moments or, sometimes, all the way through.

You (okay, I) want The Irishman to be the latter even though the best you can say about it is that it’s in the former.  But like all great cinema, the movie and its director contain some moments where you feel as if you are in the presence of screen super heroes.

And that says something.  Actually, it says a lot.

Muddy Waters – “Mannish Boy” (from soundtrack for The Irishman)