Episode 203: Marriage Story

It’s time to get real and raw, as this week we chat about Noah Baumbach’s impressive, devastating new feature film. We are strong believers in the emotional impact films can have and this one hits as hard as any in a long time. 

Marriage Story Review – 0:01:09

The Connecting Point – 1:27:37

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MOVIE REVIEW: Marriage Story

When you are with someone in a romantic partnership, it never really comes as a thought about how it will be to lose all of your love and happiness through a painful separation. It would be unorthodox to enter a relationship and not hope for the best, living out those vows to be together through the good and bad. Everybody wants to find that person that they feel completes them and is willing to call them their man/woman through the good and the noticeable flaws that rise to the surface here and there. Sometimes, these promises don’t end up with a fairy tale ending; instead, you feel the agony and suffering of a dream unfulfilled and the symptoms of a broken heart. Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” delves into a marriage breaking apart. It is based on his real experience with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh but also can be a mirror into any point in our lives when we had a failed experience of love lost.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are a married couple who live in the bustling metropolis of New York City. Charlie is the owner of a celebrated theater company that gives Nicole a chance to follow her passion for acting, which has been a part of her life since her upbringing in Los Angeles. She had a chance to have a promising career in the City of Angels as a potential leading lady, but she ditched that dream to help Charlie build up his theater company and they ended up having a young son together. Over time Nicole feels that Charlie is not being open to her ideas, happiness, and wishes to go back to LA so she can be close with her family and friends. Charlie feels that with all the time he has dedicated to putting on works that can potentially go to Broadway, and dealing with all of the pressure and prestige that comes with it, he is giving everything he has for his family. Eventually, Nicole feels that the relationship has no more value with her having no autonomy and feeling a low sense of self-worth. She wants to jumpstart the process of a divorce. Charlie is shocked and painfully thinking over a world in which he loses the one person who he thought understood him for who he was, as well as losing the chance to be an able father to his child, due to a custody battle looming that will determine if he has to uproot his life in NY and move to the West Coast away from the home.

Baumbach brings his real-life pain to the screen with an intricate focus on the different dilemmas that arise during the process of divorce. Getting an attorney, custody battles, having to pay out of pocket (which can become expensive and potentially place you in debt or financial ruin), who keeps the apartment or houses, relationships between in-laws becoming fractured, a trial which can be taxing mentally, getting rid of special mementos that remind you of said person, and the feeling of your heart breaking into pieces are all captured here. There is nowhere to hide from seeing the pain on both Charlie and Nicole’s face in most scenes while they try to remain amicable and cordial during a time of emotional heartache. Even with trying to remain friends, Charlie and Nicole are swept into the system of divorce court which only rewards “bad behavior,” pushing them to look for any secrets or dirty ammo that can be used to help secure a resolution that each one wants. It’s a dirty game that spares no expense in leaving you embittered and broken down to the core.

The performances of Driver and Johansson are nothing more than extraordinary. Driver has etched his name right onto the Best Actor statue with a portrayal full that makes audiences feel the pain and anger over his life-changing dilemma. At times, Driver brought me near tears because of how involved his performance was; nothing felt put on for melodrama as you’d expect of a stereotypical scorned ex-husband. He played this role with feelings, sensitivity, masculinity, and fear. This is what a star turn looks like. Johansson gives the best performance of her storied career and it’s not even close, leaving it all on the floor with every line reading, every display of strong drama, and even the humorous yet compassionate little moments that populate this film. The amount of dedication she exudes is a wonder to watch and it’s inevitable that her name will be called on Oscar night along with Driver. They both share natural chemistry that shines during scenes of argumentative chaos; the tears are flowing, insults flying, and they both exhibit goosebumps-inducing body language that is extremely realistic and is amazing to watch. Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer has the confidence and charisma to stand out amongst the drama and carve out her own place for award nominations. She gives a strong and snarky supporting performance that may be dwarfed by the efforts of Driver and Johannson but nevertheless makes a mark long after the credits pop up.

Randy Newman’s score is pleasant with its echoes of somber reflection, expressing itself with beautiful piano notes and violins that speak their own language. It supports the dramatic arc of the story without overstaying its welcome or becoming forceful in its magnitude, and is one of the few cases where a score feels like a compliment to the scenes and moods expressed by the characters.

The production design is a treat. Interiors are simply constructed yet feel down-home with their minimalism. Both New York and Los Angeles are treated with idealized versions of the hustle and bustle of city life. You have the cold and wintery streets of New York compared with the sunny and outgoing showmanship of Los Angeles, which also presents a parallel of the divide between Charlie and Nicole. Sublime editing is on display with the array of wonderful quick edits that show themselves during conversations. It gives the film a certain kind of rhythm that makes this story easier to tolerate and deal with the sadness of its message. Costume design is a big plus, too, with honorable mentions going to Driver’s Invisible Man costume and Johansson’s David Bowie, as well as Beatles-influenced wardrobe in some moments toward the end.

“Marriage Story” is a high mark of storytelling that will affect and impact many viewers with its realistic depiction of a marriage turning into a divorce. Intense and compassionate with its own sense of feel-good and hilarious moments to break up the heartache, Baumbach and Netflix have an Oscar darling on their hands.

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Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Bringing the members of an estranged family together for a series of dysfunctional hijinx is nothing new in film, and writer/director Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, Frances Ha) has built himself quite a filmography while dealing from this particular creative deck. He feels like a throwback to early Woody Allen, creating characters with quick wit and sharp tongues; riffing off each other’s eccentricities in ways both comical and sincere. Also akin to Allen, the majority of Baumbach’s stories utilize understated New York City locales as backdrop, eschewing grandiose settings for simple brownstones and corner eateries that lend authenticity to his ensemble.

In his latest work, The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach explores similar themes to his exceptional 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale. Family dynamics as related to divorce, bitterness, and regret swirl throughout Baumbach’s tight script; his characters learning and growing as each suppressed resentment is gradually exposed.

The patriarch of the Meyerowitz family is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a man who leads life with equal parts cynicism and narcissism, both traits having an adverse effect on his relationships with his three grown children. From behind a grizzled old man beard, Hoffman plays Harold with a wry sense of entitlement. A once semi-successful artist, he is continuously drawn to the allure of unearned accolades and notoriety. Hoffman is doing his best work in years, and this role is tailor made for his matter of fact style.

Harold’s three children, Danny (Adam Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and Matthew (Ben Stiller), have journeyed to New York to celebrate Harold’s upcoming show at a local college. Clearly the first time the siblings have been together in some time, and exacerbated by Harold’s quirky sensibilities, it’s only a matter of time before the animosities each child carries from their upbringing bubble up like a spring loaded, therapist’s couch confessional.  Sibling rivalry and a strong sense of being unfairly judged for their decisions in life by their father has led all three kids to a place of resentment, in varying parts towards Harold and each other.

Elizabeth Marvel is given the least to do amongst the three kids, but her sour, frumpy Jean manages to steal every scene she’s in. It’s unfortunate Baumbach doesn’t do a lot with Jean, and her point of view suffers as a result. She comes off as someone who just accepts her lot in life, with little control over her destiny nor motivation to challenge it. Ben Stiller is also up to task, but his Matthew doesn’t feel like a stretch for him as an actor. There are stark similarities between this role and his turn as Chas Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Matthew is driven by unreasonable expectations for success, but his insecurities dictate that he will alienate those around him with an incessant need to prove his worth.

The true standout here is Adam Sandler. Every once in a while, Sandler will dabble in a dramatic turn and remind us that there is some talent to be found there. I really wish he would stick with roles such as this and stop with the lazy “vacation with my bros” comedy crap that has devalued his stock as an actor over the years. Sandler’s Danny is a nuanced, three dimensional character filled with hurt and resentment, and Sandler digs deep in a lot of scenes to bring forth those emotions. He even gets to champion the daddy/daughter dynamic missing between Harold/Jean, in scenes with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), who is starting her freshman year in college. There is a particular scene between the two which involves a piano riff and a made up song about how they need each other and how they will always be there. It’s a moving moment, and a testament to how Danny is determined not to become his own father.

Baumbach adds a few bit characters as window dressing, most notably Maureen (Emma Thompson) as Harold’s current wife; a frazzled, inebriated eccentric with colored glasses and frumpy smocks who looks like she spent a lot of time getting into the 60’s.

One of the best things about Baumbach is how he manages to infuse drama with hilarious, natural comedy. Whenever the story takes a serious tone, there is always a sharp line such as, “Maureen, get your granddaughter more shark.” It reminds us that real life is going on around these people, and their struggles in life are balanced by moments that are meant to be laughed at. Even though we know there are no people in this world that hold conversations quite as naturally as those in the film, it’s that balance that gives Baumbach’s work authenticity.

One gripe I have with Baumbach is that his film’s aren’t very diverse. I’m not that guy that gets caught up in checking boxes, but if New York City is your muse, it would be nice to occasionally see a person of color do something more than serve your food at a cafe. A lot of his films feel culled from the world of HBO’s Girls (a show I adored, for the record); a show that was also criticized for its lack of diversity.

If you find yourself drawn to Baumbach’s other work, specifically The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and Mistress America, I think you’ll find a lot to like in The Meyerowitz Stories.  This is a film that aligns neatly within the filmmaker’s wheelhouse, with the same biting wit and interpersonal drama that drives most of his narratives. The calculated risk of allowing Adam Sandler to carry the torch pays off in a big way. Baumbach typically won’t leave his characters in a bad place at the end of his films, and nothing changes here. If you tend to like satisfying resolutions, not to insinuate that all of the past damage is undone, but each character finding themselves no worse for the wear, you can rest assured the Meyerowitz’s will find themselves in a similar spot in the end. – By Steve Clifton

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What We Learned This Week: April 16-22

LESSON #1: THE “FAST AND FURIOUS” FRANCHISE HAS BEEN FOR REAL FOR A LONG TIME— I was amazed this week how many casual movie fans (and uppity critics) were surprised by the record-breaking international success of “The Fate of the Furious.”  I wonder what rock they’ve been under because “Furious 7” was a $1.5 billion worldwide smash two years ago and each film of the four films since 2009 has surpassed the gross of the previous one.  The franchise has cross-gender and cross-racial appeal on multiple levels.   This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

LESSON #2: OVER-ANALYZATION TAKES AWAY FROM ENJOYMENT— After a month of incredible trailer debuts for blockbuster after blockbuster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” came in this past week and dropped its own microphone.  In my opinion, Episode 8 didn’t need to share a single second of footage to be hotly anticipated and successful.  The problem has been the endless mountain of clickbait websites and posts filled that have tried to analyze every second of the trailer since.  I get that pageviews and visits move the needle and anything “Star Wars” sells, but diving into every little theory and poorly educated guess is destined to take away the enjoyment of the future finished product.  Pump the brakes and just enjoy the hype.  Don’t buy into the rumor mill.

LESSON #3: THIS YEAR’S CANNES LINE-UP WILL BE SPECIAL— The hoity-toity-est of international film festivals celebrates 70 years this May with a killer lineup of potential future Oscar contenders.  New films premiere from Sofia Coppola, Noah Baumbach, Bong Joo-Hoo, Michael Haneke, Todd Haynes, Yorgos Lanthimos, Francois Ozon, Mathieu Almaric, Taylor Sheridan, Arnaud Desplechin, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  That’s some pedigree.  Take a trip to Europe.  I’m bet the plane tickets to the French Riviera and hotel prices are more than affordable.  Hit up United.  I’m sure they’ll have room.

LESSON #4: FILMS CAN ADD AS MANY POST-CREDITS SCENES AS THEY WANT— 50/50 cheers and jeers of “that’s so awesome” and “good Lord, WTF” rained down from social media keyboards when Marvel Films and director James Gunn announced that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” would have no less than FIVE post-credits scenes.  These stingers have been a signature staple for Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  They are both entertaining and functional to solidify the continuity of their film franchises.  You know you were staying anyway.  What’s a few more?  Enjoy the film’s kicking soundtrack, power back on your phone, and have a little patience.  If you don’t like it, go to the lobby, pee, and leave.  No one is stopping you or forcing you to stay.

 

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.