Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Marriage Story: The Sun Comes Up, I Think About You

Stephen Sondheim, composer/lyricist of arcane but wonderful Broadway musicals, is certainly having a moment at the movies. In the delightful Knives Out, Daniel Craig as Southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc casually warbles “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s Follies.  It’s an odd, unlikely plot detail, but one that seems – upon reflection – to provide a whimsical clue to the film’s ending. Then there’s Noah Baumbach’s masterful Marriage Story. Writer/director Baumbach, whose previous credits include The Squid and the Whale, would seem to be the poet of dissolving marriages. He approaches the story of Charlie and Nicole Barber with even-handed but compassionate restraint. It’s a film that’s deeply moving, disturbing, but still somehow hopeful.

Sondheim songs come into Marriage Story late in the game, providing a pivot from the marital spat that’s the absolute nadir of the crumbling relationship into at least a guarded optimism. The husband and wife in question are both show folks (he a much-honored avant-garde stage director, she an actress blessed with star quality), and so it’s perhaps not surprising to see them stand up and perform in public. Scarlett Johansson, as Nicole, joins Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever in a spirited off-the-cuff rendition of Sondheim”s  perky “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” from Company.  It’s a sign, perhaps, that Nicole has moved past the anger she’s felt toward her ex-spouse for thwarting her own professional dreams. Immediately thereafter, on the other side of the continent, Adam Driver’s Charlie rises from a table at a local watering hole and delivers a heartfelt  rendition of the plaintive but affirmative “Being Alive,” the climactic solo from the same show. He’s still hurting, we know, but he’ll move on.

Charlie and Nicole at first both claim to want a no-fault divorce, one that will allow them to separate firmly but gracefully, while still remaining friends. That’s, of course, before their lawyers get into the act. The legal profession does not come off well in these proceedings. The divorce attorneys (Laura Dern for her, first Alan Alda and then Ray Liotta for him) reduce a relationship into a pitched battle. In angling for their clients to emerge victorious, they twist every quirk and misstep into an indication of the other side’s culpability. Of course it quickly gets ugly.

The reason for lawyering up has everything to do with the one person who has no say in the matter, Charlie and Nicole’s eight-year-old son. Nicole wants young Henry with her in L.A., where she’s returning to her roots by starring in a TV series. Charlie insists Henry belongs where he’s always been, in New York City. In this, Marriage Story makes a fascinating contrast to an earlier award-winning film about a custody battle,1979’s  Kramer vs. Kramer. In that New York-based film, a mother who feels stifled by domestic life suddenly decamps for the west coast, leaving her husband to cope single-handed with young Billy. The focus of Kramer vs. Kramer is how that father, a standard busy-young-exec type played by Dustin Hoffman, learns to expand his life to take over full-time parenting chores. Just when he’s been transformed by his new responsibilities, the wife (newcomer Meryl Streep) re-appears, suing for custody on the grounds that as mother she deserves to be the custodial parent.

Marriage Story has a more complex, and doubtless more modern, view of a father’s role. Charlie is a man who’s always loved tending to the needs of his son. He doesn’t have to be taught about fatherhood. The question is: can both he and Nicole remain active parents without striking a kind of Solomonic bargain? 

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