Shouldn’t “Marriage Story” be called The Divorce Story?

There are certain filmmakers whose upcoming work fills me anticipation. Then there’s filmmakers like Noah Baumbach. He has a large body of work as a writer, director and producer with films such as Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale. On the one hand, I admire how he features strong women as characters in his film. I want to like his films. His work features fraught family relationships and people on the verge of emotional breakdowns. It feels like watching a car crash. For someone like me, who feels great empathy for the characters on the screen, it can feel like BEING in a car crash.

Marriage Story is getting great critical acclaim for the performances of Scarlett Johanssan and Adam Driver. Both the trailers and the opening scenes of the film use a wonderful story technique of introducing the characters describing their partners good qualities. Opening the film with the warm glow of the character’s love before dropping the audience into the divorce already in progeess gives the film a strong start. What begins as an agreement for an amicable separation, becomes a strident battle of lawyers and devastating emotional drama.

Laura Dern, played with calculation and phony warmth, is the barracuda divorce lawyer going for the jugular. Most of the characters rang false to me. Johansson’s mother in her bad haircut rewards her son for defecating and spending time with his father, and displays a childlike gesture to beg for hugs. Every character trait is exaggerated. She’s shown cutting everyone’s hair and yet, their hair seems the same. I found myself disliking all of the characters, even the little boy who seems to be manipulating his parents with requests for toys.

Yes, Adam Driver is great in his emotional moments and portrayal of a clueless theatrical “genius”. Did we need to sit through an entire song to understand his loss? I think that uncomfortable moments that some people find amusing, I find painful. The film felt too long, too caustic and too unrealistic.

Drinks With Films rating: 2 strong bourbons to blunt the emotional pain (out of 5)

“Frances Ha” — Indecision, in black and white

Great Gerwig & Mickey Sumner

Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner

There are times I feel like a character in one of the movies I’m seeing…  As I sit in the theater watching the trailer for “Frances Ha”, I think to myself, “Wow, they’re sure giving away a lot of the relationship”. Then the title appears and I realize, “DOH, this is the film I’m here to SEE!”.  So, obviously, I’m not just a passive audience member, I’m as indecisive as our heroine!

Filming in black and white, Noah Baumbach has given “Frances Ha” an older, European feel.  There’s even a John Cassavette vibe in the New York setting and the focus on intimate relationships.  The soundtrack is fantastic.  Something about the David Bowie songs and the characters exuberant walks around New York City…it’s a perfect fit.  It’s refreshing to have a coming-of-age story about a 28 year-old woman, who’s prone to some bad decisions, yet isn’t portrayed as a child.  Greta Gerwig plays Frances as an intelligent young woman with an education and a calling; just not the drive or the connections to get where she needs to go.  This is no Man-Child comedy of potty humor and pratfalls, but a sweet relationship drama that’s not focused on a romantic relationship!

Frances may be prone to moments of whacky behavior and over-sharing, but she’s not an idiot.  She may be socially-akward and she doesn’t land a hot boyfriend, but she’s kind and hopeful and loved by many.  Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig co-wrote the script and “Frances Ha” has a nice balance of characters that all seem to act their age.  There are wonderful performances by all members of the cast with well-rounded male performances that are endearing. Mickey Sumner is a delight as the best friend.

Frances hasn’t hit her stride and when she moves in with two younger men, they treat her like a whacky older sister but not as a failure.  Her main relationship is with her female best friend and the scene where she’s achieved success and looks across the room to share her triumph with the one person who truly “gets her” — is not only sweet, it’s feels like an act of empowerment…for all women!   What a change — a film featuring a woman who’s striving for success but isn’t waiting for a man, acting catty or in need of a fashion make-over to achieve her goals!

Rating: 4 glasses of French wine…purchased, unwisely, on a credit card