Marriage Story Review

*****

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece, a tragicomedy of human relationships that gets everything right. Anchored by pitch perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this forensic study of a certain kind of divorce elegantly, faultlessly rides the bittersweet path: every scene, and practically every moment, is simultaneously deeply sad and very funny. That’s not just skilled filmmaking, it’s a kind of alchemy.

The stakes are high but accessible: there is a child, Henry, who is about six years old; the splitting couple each have work on either side of the United States (he in NYC, she in LA); both want Henry to live on their coast. Without money and property being foregrounded, the story remains deeply human and humane: Baumbach shows deep empathic compassion for both his leads, and for us as an audience. We are not forced to pick sides. Their professional world – of the grant-subsidised NYC theatre and uncertainties but big bucks of series TV – is rarefied and simply rare, but Baumbach’s script and direction is so incredibly specific, so full of rich and precisely observed detail, that the whole is entirely relatable; that old adage, find the universal in the specific, is entirely and successfully at play here.

If there is a villain, it’s lawyers and a legal system that reflects the misnomer of the “United” States: California and New York have rival systems, and god forbid you break up in both of them simultaneously.

The deep bench of supporting actors do superb work: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as the attorneys, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Johansson’s family, Wallace Shawn as a workmate and Azhy Robertson as Henry. Driver and Johansson deliver career-bests and will both be nominated for Oscars. Driver may win.

This may be the best film of 2019. It’s right up there. Unmissable.

Mistress America

banner-mistress-america-film_2**** (out of five)

The second screenplay collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, Mistress America is gleefully, self-knowingly stuffed with spectacularly funny dialogue, the kind of rapid-fire zingers they used to give to Tracy and Hepburn or Hope and Crosby. It sounds very written, especially coming out of Gerwig’s mouth; she hits every consonant, syllable and punctuation point, as if proud of her own words, which she should be.

Gerwig is Hope or Hepburn to Lola Kirke’s Crosby or Tracy; Kirke plays a Tracy, an NYU Freshman feeling lonely and disconnected, who is inspired to write a short story by her soon-to-be sister (by marriage) Brooke (Gerwig). They immediately develop a May / August bramance, and Tracy inspires Brooke to follow her dreams, with mixed results.

This is really witty stuff, the funniest film Baumbach has made (while not necessarily being his best, which is probably The Squid and The Whale; we also have to remember that he co-wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, both of which are really, really funny). Gerwig is luminescent even in her artificiality while Kirke is movingly real; rather than being a distraction, their differing styles complement each other beautifully. You’ll be hard pressed to remember details of this film in a couple of months – it’s a light, breezy, quick trip to the fountain – but it’s joyful as hell, and as funny.