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Marriage Story (2019)


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Spoilers, I guess.

I did not like A Marriage Story very much. It was well executed, I guess, but I am not sure it told me anything I didn't already know or feel anything more complicated than that people who are suffering are sad. 

First, it really should be called A Divorce Story. The couple is separating when the movie begins. One might argue--and I sorta expected--that the story of the marriage would be told in flashback, but....not really. Or at least not in any meaningful, comprehensive way. I've heard more than one person discussing the film at Filmfest 919 agree with my assessment that the film is slanted to the Adam Driver character. It is the wife who physically leaves, going to California and taking the kid, who refuses to engage in (counseling? mediation?) who hires a lawyer (after they agree they wouldn't) and then consults with all the other lawyers so that he *can't* get that she demands he get. Yes, some of this is showing her getting seduced by her lawyer, I guess, and maybe that says something about her inability to stand up for herself. On his side...well, he has an affair. Or rather, had an affair, earlier in the marriage, though he declines continuing it after she leaves. He doesn't listen to her when she says she wants to leave for California and maybe...cares more about his career than hers. Oh, and he says he wishes she were dead. 

It is, of course, telling that most of the stuff he does to her is related at second hand and is in the *past* while most of the stuff she does to him is depicted on screen. My point is not that none of this could happen or does happen. I did think it odd how many people introducing the film (or guest of honor) use the word "empathetic" to describe it. The film did not engender empathy in me, only sympathy. 

But it also frustrated me a bit. By calling itself a *Marriage* story, is it implying that this is what marriage *is*? That this is not the dissolution or deterioration of a marriage but the essence of it? The ending, too, seemed to suggest to me that divorce could be (and usually is) a good thing. Painful, yes, but painfully *necessary,* and hence, leading to a kind of independence within interdependence that can never be achieved in marriages, even healthy ones. 

Driver has never been better (I'm usually not a fan), and Scarlett with two "t"s? She conveys, I guess, in a scary way, the rage some women must feel at not being heard and not being seen while having to live in a world where they are called upon to be happy all the time and subordinate their lives to that of men. The couple is not Christian, of course, nor does religion appear to play much of any part in their courtship, marriage, or divorce. Does that matter? Well it does to me, but only to the extent that it shades my beliefs about what marriage is and, hence, what they are doing when they enter into that marriage, give up on it, and justify their separation.

Still, I have this nagging feeling that this will feel...familiar to a lot of people and that familiarity will be mistook for wisdom or truth. I would not be surprised by a host of nominations (for writing and acting and supporting acting), but I sure hope it doesn't win. It's like The Squid & The Whale is rewritten from the dad's perspective. Will we get a third movie about the same thing that's more clearly from the woman's perspective, or is the assumption that this film does that? 

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Been working on this review for two weeks, so I'd welcome any and all feedback.

https://catholiccinephile.wordpress.com/2019/12/10/marriage-story/

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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15 minutes ago, Evan C said:

Been working on this review for two weeks, so I'd welcome any and all feedback.

https://catholiccinephile.wordpress.com/2019/12/10/marriage-story/

Solid review. I'm curious what you mean by this:

Quote

Finally, there’s one other transformation that only some people will pick up on, but it takes something that initially appeared one way, and adds layers of richness by presenting it in a completely different context. I can’t spoil what that is, but the way it microcosmically depicts the journey from pain to acceptance is hands down my favorite scene of any movie this year.

 

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I didn't love it, either, Ken, and I was really thinking it would be right in my wheelhouse.  I felt largely the same way that Baumbach tilted the equilibrium toward Charlie, and then somewhat clumsily injected the plot element of his affair to try to balance things out a bit, when I'm not sure I think his character would have done that.  It made me want to revisit Bergman's miniseries, though.  Speaking of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, it's funny that Baumbach gives Charlie one of Bernard's lines about all the f&*%ing he left on the table by being committed to and then married to Nicole.

Here's the part that affected me the most:

Despite all of the more-showy cathartic scenes in the last half-hour, the one that spoke most directly and tenderly to me is the moment where Charlie arrives at Nicole's house to find Nicole's mother chasing Henry and the New Boyfriend around with Nerf guns. He hesitates and you can see that he's realizing that everybody moves on. She's not just G-ma to him. Charlie had built something with her, married into it, yeah, but made it something that transcended the gestures and obligations of inlawdom. Hell, even after the marriage had gone on life support Charlie greets her by picking her up like a small child, and she lovingly reciprocates! She wanted to make sure the divorce demand could be withdrawn and she offered him an encouraging word in the hallway when he needed it. None of that concern becomes untrue when she acquires familiarity with or affection for New Boyfriend, but the poignance of what humans can achieve through love fades when we can be so easily swapped out and all those years of shared memories are just misplaced letters.

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2 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

Solid review. I'm curious what you mean by this:

 

My guess is Nicole's transformation from not wanting Charlie to know how deeply she loves him and why, as expressed in the letter, to not objecting and allowing Henry to share it with him.  As I was watching the scene I had this feeling in the back of my mind that at some point she'd realize what Henry was doing and shut it down, because I'd forgotten that it's totally part of the playbook that she'd show her growth as a person by allowing that grace to him.

Speaking of playbooks, I resisted the charms of the showtunes, maybe partly because I'm not much steeped in musicals, but your review was insightful and helpful to me, Evan.

Edited by Russ
Bad writing.

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2 hours ago, Russ said:

I didn't love it, either, Ken, and I was really thinking it would be right in my wheelhouse. 

Always a pleasure to hear from you, Russ. 

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5 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

Solid review. I'm curious what you mean by this:

 

Quote

Finally, there’s one other transformation that only some people will pick up on, but it takes something that initially appeared one way, and adds layers of richness by presenting it in a completely different context. I can’t spoil what that is, but the way it microcosmically depicts the journey from pain to acceptance is hands down my favorite scene of any movie this year.

3 hours ago, Russ said:

My guess is Nicole's transformation from not wanting Charlie to know how deeply she loves him and why, as expressed in the letter, to not objecting and allowing Henry to share it with him.  As I was watching the scene I had this feeling in the back of my mind that at some point she'd realize what Henry was doing and shut it down, because I'd forgotten that it's totally part of the playbook that she'd show her growth as a person by allowing that grace to him.

Speaking of playbooks, I resisted the charms of the showtunes, maybe partly because I'm not much steeped in musicals, but your review was insightful and helpful to me, Evan.

I mentioned that transformation two or three paragraphs before that. The last paragraph is a reference to:

SPOILERS

Charlie's (single-take, IIRC) performance of "Being Alive," from Company. In Company, that song comes as the conclusion to a musical of marital ups and downs and Bobby (the protagonist) sings with interjections from the other characters as he overcomes his fear of commitment and loneliness from the sarcastic first verse to the sincere second one. Hearing that song with Charlie doing all the parts at the conclusion of a story in which a marriage falls apart transforms the song, making it not about overcoming a fear of commitment, but about accepting a new state of life and not being afraid of it or bitter about it. At the same time, it makes a major premise of Company and this movie more pointed: that you can't use others for your happiness. So even though "Being Alive" plays here as a reversal of the way it plays in Company, it still accomplishes something very similar--Charlie's quotes of the supporting characters' lines are initially sarcastic and reflect the pain he's still in (in the musical those lines are the sincere contrast to Bobby's sarcastic 1st verse), but by the song's end Charlie comes to accept the way he's going to live and works through that pain.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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1 hour ago, Evan C said:

Charlie's (single-take, IIRC) performance of "Being Alive," from Company. In Company, that song comes as the conclusion to a musical of marital ups and downs and Bobby (the protagonist) sings with interjections from the other characters as he overcomes his fear of commitment and loneliness from the sarcastic first verse to the sincere second one. Hearing that song with Charlie doing all the parts at the conclusion of a story in which a marriage falls apart transforms the song, making it not about overcoming a fear of commitment, but about accepting a new state of life and not being afraid of it or bitter about it. At the same time, it makes a major premise of Company and this movie more pointed: that you can't use others for your happiness. So even though "Being Alive" plays here as a reversal of the way it plays in Company, it still accomplishes something very similar--Charlie's quotes of the supporting characters' lines are initially sarcastic and reflect the pain he's still in (in the musical those lines are the sincere contrast to Bobby's sarcastic 1st verse), but by the song's end Charlie comes to accept the way he's going to live and works through that pain.

As someone with little-to-no knowledge of Sondheim, this was eye-opening to read. I knew it was a song from a musical or broadway show, but knowing the context adds a lot of layers to what's happening in the scene.

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Like Russ, I was surprised to find myself in the wrong wheelhouse (is that how that metaphor works?). I've decided on two explanations. The first is that I'm not sure Baumbach has much wisdom to offer on the situation beyond simply recreating it in hopes that audiences recognize themselves in the accumulation of details (which is not, on the whole, a bad approach to filmmaking). Second, I think the performances are out of balance. For whatever reasons, I find Driver unusually charismatic and believable in almost any role, whereas Scarlett Johansson is never not an actress pretending to be someone else. The form of the film -- its self-reflexive allusions to theater and its long, unbroken monologues -- only add to that imbalance, which ends up being unfair to Nicole, the character.

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5 hours ago, Darren H said:

For whatever reasons, I find Driver unusually charismatic and believable in almost any role, whereas Scarlett Johansson is never not an actress pretending to be someone else. The form of the film -- its self-reflexive allusions to theater and its long, unbroken monologues -- only add to that imbalance, which ends up being unfair to Nicole, the character.

I agree completely; looking at Johansson's imdb profile, the only recent film where I've found her completely convincing is, ironically, Her.  Before that, you have to go back to a couple of Woody Allen flicks and Lost in Translation.  Honestly, I didn't find her LA family or Laura Dern all that believable either.

Ditto on the surprise, ditto on the non-wheelhouse; and I've really dug a couple of Baumbach's earlier films.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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I have enjoyed the conversation around this film, though. The big fight scene has gotten people (in my corner of film twitter, at least) talking about the performative aspects of real fights. Like, when we're arguing with someone we love, how much of it is an opportunity for each person to step out of their everyday personality and play the role of aggrieved spouse/partner? Joanna and I are both non-confrontational and passive-aggressive, so when we do, on very rare occassion, raise our voices, it really is like two different people have just stepped into the room. I like the moment after Charlie punches a whole in wall, when he and Nicole both take a beat, like, "That was weird. You don't do that kind of thing. I guess we're having that fight."

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27 minutes ago, Darren H said:

The big fight scene has gotten people (in my corner of film twitter, at least) talking about the performative aspects of real fights. Like, when we're arguing with someone we love, how much of it is an opportunity for each person to step out of their everyday personality and play the role of aggrieved spouse/partner?

The balance between performative and sincere really works will in the scene, as I wonder how many marriages (mine included) have been shaped and informed, tacitly or overtly, by cultural works and performances we've seen in films, TV, theater, etc. Perhaps if our imaginations are so shaped in this way, it comes out in our kneejerk reactions in those emotionally raw moments. Plus, Nicole and Charlie are performers—they're theater people, so that shapes their imaginations and practices and reactions as well.

I think the film worked as well as it did for me precisely because my wife and I watched it together, and our audible reactions to it—gasps, groans, etc.—throughout watching the film added to the experience. (E.g. I loved it when Katie muttered "just shut up" when Charlie says something about being a "New York family" for the umpteenth time.) Not sure it's a film we'd want to rewatch any time soon, though, unlike the Before trilogy.

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Note: There's no "A" in the title.

Darren H wrote:
Scarlett Johansson is never not an actress pretending to be someone else. 

That argument, or one very much like it, came up at a recent meeting of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and the point was made that Scarlett's *character* in this film *is* an actress, and is *always* putting on a performance, or trying to *learn* the roles that have been handed to her by her (ex-)husband, her lawyer, etc. It was also pointed out that Scarlett's character is clearly modeled on Baumbach's ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, and that Leigh herself, like a lot of actors, is *always* acting, is always "on" in some sense. (Or so said the colleague who, I believe, has met her.) For whatever that's worth.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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