Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
United Kingdom/USA, 2019. Heyday Films, Netflix. Screenplay by Noah Baumbach. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Noah Baumbach, David Heyman. Music by Randy Newman. Production Design by Jade Healy. Costume Design by Mark Bridges. Film Editing by Jennifer Lame. Academy Awards 2019. AFI Film of the Year 2019. Boston Film Critics Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. Gotham Awards 2019. Independent Spirit Awards 2019. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. New York Film Critics Awards 2019. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
A heartwarming opening montage has married couple Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson explaining each other to the audience, telling us what the one loves in the other, what they admire about them, what drew them together and has kept them going through years of marriage and the first few years of their young son’s life. Pulling back from this first sequence reveals something tragic when it turns out that this narration is the letters they’ve each written to read out loud in a mediation process that is already breaking down. Having decided to go their separate ways but hoping to do so amicably, equitably and without the use of divorce lawyers, Driver and Johansson try the less formal proceedings of a separation mediator but for one major problem: they can’t even agree on how to split up. He, an avant-garde theatre director whose life is entirely centered around the bustling artistic energy of New York, believes that moving on is the next logical step and takes responsibility for an affair that led to their splitting. She, formerly a teen movie actress who has been devoted to his theatre company for years but now longs to re-enter the world of television and film in sunny L.A., is mired in a great deal of pain about a man she can no longer live with but has doubts about leaving. When she flies to the west coast to shoot a pilot with their young son in tow, Driver understands it to be temporary and that they will always be near each other in Manhattan, but when he is sued for divorce by the fancy, Louboutin-sporting lawyer that Johansson has hired in Los Angeles (played by a fascinating Laura Dern), he finds himself flying coast to coast in an effort to get his life back on track. He hires his own lawyer, first the easy charm of Alan Alda before his fear takes him to the uncompromising bulldoggery of Ray Liotta, and plunges himself in the nightmare of dissolving a marriage, the uncomfortable practicalities of relocating, rearranging his career and putting himself in the worst financial stress of his life. Writer-director Noah Baumbach puts us through every step of this awful process and does so beautifully in this heartfelt and delicate film, relaying these terrifying realities without ever placing blame. The perspective weighs heavier on Driver’s side because he’s the one that needs to come to terms with the reality of their relationship, we basically watch as he gets to the point of emotional sensitivity and awareness that Johansson has had since the beginning, but Baumbach tempts our sympathies in all directions evenly; the feckless and shallow California film industry is rendered with affection, the snooty and pretentious New York theatre milieu is put across with warmth (the now tired plot twist of the MacArthur Genius Grant feels as overused as it is), and Johansson and Driver’s good and bad qualities are given a similar amount of depth and justification. Even the blood-sucking lawyers come across as human beings who can’t help but be good at their jobs in their Don’t Hate The Player Hate The Game attitudes, while a series of goofy supporting characters (Merritt Wever as Johansson’s hippy-chick sister, Julie Hagerty as her flighty mom) threaten to upend the plot’s deeper themes but don’t, instead providing a lighthearted relief to the darkness of the main couple’s trajectory without undermining the seriousness of their situation. The filmmaking indulges in very little in the way of aesthetic flourish, there’s the montage at the beginning to remind us of similar sequences in his earlier films, there’s the odd caprice of stylized scenes, like them closing the gate in front of her house in tandem (his love of French New Wave, perhaps), but the foundation of its influence is Scenes from A Marriage and its stripped down attitude towards narrative exegesis. It’s possible that no film will ever come close to Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas for putting across the impossible pain of existence, the inability to be both happy and alive, but this movie’s willingness to take on the inevitable minutiae of life’s realities as they pile up to make everlasting love impossible comes impressively (and depressingly) close.