Marriage Story (Dir. Noah Baumbach, USA 2019)
Sadly the rave reviews do not disguise the “Mumblecore” Mess of Baumbach’s latest installment.
I have often many times upon viewing modern cinema ruminated the lack of depth in acting as due to the abandonment of screen tests. You may have two very competent actors cast as romantic leads, however, that does not guarantee chemistry or that the part is right for them. Any Star Wars aficionado may recall the screen tests for the original trilogy and while the other well known actors read skillfully…the test between Harrison and Carrie was magic. You did not have to be a casting director to see those two bring the characters to life in a sincere and powerful manner.
At some point in the midst of “Indie” filmmaking…”realism” in acting became a desirable trait in film performances. But what audiences deem as “real” varies generationally.
To be honest I am not familiar with Baumbach’s previous oeuvre…thus I will be approaching this from a generational sensibility in my analysis in the approach to the topic and style of dialogue and acting; the production and limited release on pay for subscription venues. In contemplating the actual experience of viewing the film…i.e. Netflix/ limited release in theaters…and compared to other lower quality simultaneous releases in those same spheres (Netflix and other large content creators)…have our criterion for excellence lowered in the public consciousness?
There is no shame being better at epic action film acting, in fact, I find genre films more difficult to accomplish regarding the acting craft. But for some reason, actors who honed their talents in the theater world may be rueful at this inclination. That they may not be taken “seriously” if they are a more believable fiction superhero (or villain) than a “real” character that could possibly exist in the realm of reality we call day to day life.
I am an observer. Of what the audience experiences, my internal thoughts and dialogue and what other critics and writer and fandoms have written on the subject. Regardless of the vast academic film career I have had, and papers I have written, theories applied to cinematic arts, etc etc… I still value how I feel upon leaving the theater above all else.
For the most part, Marriage Story has been receiving positive reviews and feedback. It left me cold and a bit cynical. I felt it to be too forced. For one, I could but not help comparing it to the canonical divorce story, Robert Benton’s 1979’s Academy Award winner: Kramer vs. Kramer. I also re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from A Marriage and Alan Alda’s 1981 classic The Four Seasons to refresh my concept of “real” and believable relationships especially within complex marital relationships. The magic that resonates for the audience and for cinema history to view in hindsight is the chemistry among the players. Without a doubt, Liv Ullmann’s off-screen chemistry with Bergman translates to the passionate performance she delivers. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman’s off-screen disagreements added to the tension of their strife in their on screen divorce battle. And yes the 40-somethings of The Four Seasons in 1981 seem older than 40 somethings today…however, when watching Alda and Carol Burnett evolve in their marriage story in the course of a year plot-wise, makes you feel like they are a “real ” couple, not Alan Alda and Carol Burnett playing roles of a married couple. When did we cross the rubicon into this new “style” of acting? When directors go for the “indie” feel instead of the universal, it eliminates a huge chance to tap into the mass consciousness and instead settle for a quirky minority that may not have the courage to go deep into that emotional space of that which universally underlies the human condition.
Somewhere along the way we strayed from the use of cinematic devices to tell the meta narrative. Surprisingly (or maybe not so) both Kramer and The Four Seasons use Vivaldi for the core soundtrack and only when punctuating ellipses of time. I felt the score in Marriage Story was intrusive and upstaged the performances. In the aforementioned films, cinematography, set design and other artistic and poetic methods helped add texture to the basic plot, for instance in the Four Seasons, each season punctuated the underlying emotional tribulations of each couple. In Marriage Story, I felt they just read the script, casted well know names and set up the camera and yelled “Action!” without any real crafted thought into communicating a deeper transcendental meaning. Child acting has also changed, Justin Henry in 1980, being the youngest actor to ever be nominated for an Oscar, brought a sincere heartfelt performance compared to Azhy Robertson who just seemed to be plopped into this family. Also the economy of film has a huge stake in storytelling. Marriage Story being 2 hrs and 17 min with Kramer and The Four Seasons approx 90 min. Baumbach could have easily edited 20 minutes out of the ongoing banality of the divorce process.
Finally, I just did not buy the chemistry between Driver and Johansson. I cried in the films I am comparing Marriage Story to. The scene between Dustin Hoffman making French Toast for his son for the final time and then Meryl Streep’s selfless sacrifice to do what is best for their son is an epic tear jerker sequence etched into the history of cinema’s memory. I thought Baumbach was trying to encapsulate this sentiment in the “letter” Scarlett wrote about the reasons she loved Driver. But it was too forced. And it was at this point I asked my self if they had a screen test together or did producers just feel like two well known names would pull this off? Compare to Driver’s chemistry with Daisy Ridley. It is like night and day. And this brings me to the style of acting for both Johansson and Driver. I think they are better as superheroes and in high action films. This “mumblecore” indie style of film really did not extract from them that which compels the audiences that do love and follow them. It was all rather very milquetoast. Adam Driver seemed more like his child’s older brother rather than a father!
Perhaps I am being biased having Rise of Skywalker (which plot wise is a mess) and all of the Avengers films simultaneously in the mix to compare their personas to. But the two of them as a couple and going through this powerful divorce was inconceivable. The peripheral characters definitely stole the show and ironically Alan Alda made a cameo that was not up to his caliber of performance.
I may be of a dying clan of cinephiles who prefer their actors to be completely engulfed in their roles. Instead I continuously thought…here are Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as “so and so”. And kept checking my watch to see how much longer it would be. It did not bring me to tears. It did not even bring me to interest. It could be the script, the tone, the directing and the casting and the lack of artistic flair that made it a banal chapter in the legacy of two otherwise skilled and talented performers. There is no shame that a Juilliard graduate excels as an epic action hero rather than a “Dustin Hoffman-ish” role. It is this continuing bias against Hollywood that sullies the action/genre flick to be subordinate to more “serious” fare. But I judge the film regardless of style or era in which it is made, by how it moves me. And I definitely left Marriage Story feeling “meh”. Perhaps I have been spoiled to have indulged my self in the historical greats. And without a doubt I would technically have more in common with the characters of Marriage Story than a Swedish couple in 1973, or 40 somethings in the early 80s, or with two giants of cinema (Hoffman and Streep), but at the end of the day, these films are in my collection to be watched and re-watched. Marriage Story is a one-time watch that will probably not make the conversation of great relationship films twenty years from now. This is as honest as I can get… because if you would ask any of my associates, I adore Driver. But no residual admiration would be a tonic for this mediocre installment. I hope in the future the industry revisits screen tests, to insure the chemistry that keep the audience’s gaze mesmerized and compels our imaginations into the believability of the characters we invest our emotions in on the silver screen.