‘Marriage Story’ is a realistic look at an all too common topic

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6.  The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.

Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Marriage Story
Scene from Marriage Story with Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent. 

At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”

So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow. 

The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.

Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.

Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.

In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago. 

Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.

Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.

If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.

Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.

So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?


~ ~ ~ Ripples



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Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

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Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Some movies are like the roaring ocean, waves mounting upon waves rousing up excitement, eliciting continuous, sensational reactions. Some are like a bubbling brook, smaller but still boisterous, teeming with life and sounds. The film Paterson is a quiet stream, water gently flows along, seemingly uneventful, and yet, you can sit there by its side and just watch its quiet swirling.

Paterson has been screened at many film festivals this year. I missed it at TIFF, glad I could catch it when I came home to CIFF. For a film about poetry and a loving couple (not dysfunctional, for a change) with a British bulldog named Marvin, a character in his own right, and helmed by a Palm d’Or winning director, it’s got to be a unique experience.

Director Jim Jarmusch has been garnering accolades at the Cannes Film Festival since 1984, with his early feature Stranger Than Paradise. His most commercially known work probably is Broken Flowers (Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury, 2005) with Bill Murray and Julie Delpy. This year, Paterson has once again brought the director to Cannes as a nominee for the prestigious Palme d’Or. 

Jarmusch ought to be applauded for making a film on poetry, for who in this day of mega explosive, blockbuster productions would think of turning Williams Carlos Williams’ poetic notion into a movie. Yes, WCW himself was a resident of Paterson, New Jersey, and his 5-volume epic poem Paterson must have been the source inspiration for Jarmusch.


The movie Paterson is about an admirer of WCW and an aspiring poet whose occupation may be furthest from the creative process. But that’s exactly the point. Where do we get inspirations and ideas? What kickstarts our creative process? Do we need to climb to the top of the mountain, soak up a magnificent sunrise to unleash our creativity? Apparently not.

We see in the film that the most mundane of everyday objects, like, a box of matches, can spark off a new poem. Jarmusch has his own style of cinematic poetry making: the deadpan, casual expressions of his main character, thus, embedding humour in the serious. Adam Driver (While We Were Young, 2014) is probably the best person to star in this film, not only in name, but in his demeanour. He is Paterson, a bus driver with a daily route of driving bus route no.23 around the small town of Paterson, New Jersey.

We follow Paterson for a week. He gets up at the same time, around 6:20 am, plus or minus 5 minutes, eats his breakfast cereal, carries his lunch box and goes to work. He drives his no. 23 route around town, overhearing passengers’ small talks, brewing in his mind thoughts and ideas, writing down lines in a note book when he has a chance, has his lunch sitting on a bench overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River, then back to work. After work he goes home, has dinner with his loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks the pug Marvin, ties him outside the bar, goes in and have his beer, chats with bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), meets the regulars Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon) and listens to their stories, then walks Marvin back home and sleep.

As viewers we see this seven times over. Reminds me of Groundhog Day (1993). But Jarmusch is clever in sprinkling subtle humour and surprises, quite like life. Paterson is a contented soul, driving a bus may be as fulfilling as writing poetry. Wife Laura is more experimental, and takes charge of her creative expressions more explicitly, like learning the guitar to reach her dream of being a country singer, like interior decorating her home according to her obsession with black and white, or baking cupcakes in her own signature style as a step to opening her own cupcake store. Whatever, the two are a loving, contented couple. Creativity manifests in various ways.


And then there’s Marvin, who may be the best pug in pictures. He has a role to play too in this mundane plot. His story line is, again, life as well.

That’s about all I’ll reveal about the movie without giving out the spoiler, yes, even for this seemingly uneventful film. But as I write, I’m thinking of another matter. This film is probably screened only at very limited cities, at arthouse, independent cinemas. So, why am I writing about a film that not many of you will actually be able to see? What exactly is the relevance of writing something that few may relate to? Or… is the review a piece of writing that readers can respond to despite not experiencing the film itself?

If you have some thoughts on this, I’d appreciate your input. Throw your two pebbles into the Pond and create some ripples so I’d have an idea.

Having poured out this puzzling thought that has been troubling me for some time, I’m reminded of Paterson’s poetry writing in the basement of his home, his notebook filled with his private thoughts and lines, which nobody has ever or will ever read. What’s his purpose then?

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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While We’re Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity

The discussion that follows involves major plot points. Spoiler Alert. If you have watched the movie, you’re welcome to share your views in the comment section.


The film begins with an excerpt from Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder. In the context of the play, Solness, the Master Builder, is fearful of the young, specifically, the draftsman he has taken under his wings, Ragnar. Solness’ anxiety lies in his apprehension that one day, soon, the young Ragnar would open shop on his own as a full-fledged builder, surpassing him and rendering his life work obsolete. He has the following exchange with a young lady friend Hilda:

Solness: … Wait and see, the young will come here, thundering at the door! Breaking in on me!
Hilda: Then I think you should go out and open your door to the young.
Solness: Open the door?
Hilda: Yes. Let them come in to you – as friends.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach sets the stage for a contemporary story with the parallel of Solness in his main character Josh Shrebnik, 44, aptly played by Ben Stiller. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who may have passed the peak of his career, his latest project dragging on for ten years without new grant money coming in. In the continued education class where he teaches documentary filmmaking, he meets a hipster couple in their 20’s, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie expresses great admiration for Josh, feeding him what he needs. Soon, Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) become fast friends with them, and begin to drift away from their peers, new parents Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horrovitz).

In Frances Ha (2012), Baumbach brought us a positive profile of youth embodied in co-writer and star Greta Gerwig. Gerwig grasped the gist of youth beautifully by portraying an aspiring young dancer in NYC finding her way to a career and to her own true self. In Frances we see a delightful image of the young. Here in While We’re Young, Baumbach presents another view on youth. He does it by juxtaposing hipsters with the middle-aged, leading the audience through a revealing and interesting story. While the brunt of the laughs falls on the older pair Josh and Cornelia, the ultimate revealing is on the younger generation.

While We're Young

What makes the movie rich and intriguing is that what looks like a simple, single storyline embeds multi-layered thematic materials. On the surface, Baumbach lets us laugh at Josh and Cornelia, forty-something, childless, needing to come to terms with aging but not until one last attempt at rejuvenation. Hanging out with Jamie and Darby makes them feel young again. Josh dons a fedora hat, wears hipster shoes, rides a bike to keep up with Jamie. Cornelia goes with Darby to a hip hop dance class, and stressed herself out with the moves. For more flavour, both try the new experience of detoxing through a vomit inducing potion in a shaman party. Watts sure can keep up in her comedic act with Stiller, just right in juggling between depth of emotions and light-hearted fun. After St. Vincent, where she plays a small, funny role alongside Bill Murray, Watts has proven once again that she can wear the comic hat suitably.

On another level, we see Baumbach contrasting the ironic lifestyle choices in a sequence of fast cuts. We see the middle-aged couple using iPhone to Google once something comes up, while Jamie and Darby just try to remember and recall the info. Googling is too easy; they don’t want instant answers. If they can’t recall, they’re contented with not knowing. I can’t get enough of these subtly planted Baumbach jokes. As Josh listens to CD’s on his laptop, Jamie enjoys his wall to wall collection of vinyl records, played on a turntable. Jamie makes his own table, Darby makes ice cream from scratch. They ride a bike to get around. Their hipster lifestyle totally grabs Josh as genuine and cool; impressing him even more is their generous and open demeanour. A budding documentary filmmaker, Jamie invites Josh to co-direct his film. Josh is totally sold.

Ben Stiller is a natural when it comes to playing a clueless, de-valued character like this one. In Greenberg (2010), his previous collaboration with Baumbach, he plays a similar role, middle-aged and lost in the flow of life, also touched and changed by a youthful character (Greta Gerwig). It’s easy for us to laugh at Stiller, a greying forty-four-year-old hipster-wanna-be trying hands-free cycling following Jamie but only for a short two seconds before he twisted his back. The back will soon heal, but it’s “Arthritis” on the knees that the doctor is more concerned about. The joke there in the doctor’s office is just too good for me to include here. And, when did he last have his eyes checked?

As the story develops however, we begin to see Josh having second thoughts. Maybe Jamie’s work isn’t as authentic and spontaneous as it looks. Adam Driver is perfect in projecting a fused expression of innocence and mischief. His calculated moves startle Josh. Herein lies a crucial, contentious thematic element. There’s a fundamental breach of integrity. Is Jamie ignorant about ethics or is he simply amoral? Isn’t a documentary supposed to present truths? To what extent can it be staged or its ‘facts’ twisted? Nil, according to old-schooled Josh; such methods are fraudulent, crossing ethical boundaries, inexcusable. To Jamie, it’s no big deal, “it doesn’t matter that it’s fake.” To us the viewers, this third act is the juice in the meat. Josh’s indignation is justified.

But then, Baumbach pulls back, as if being too harsh on young Jamie. As I think about the notion of authenticity in the movie, I realize it comes in different forms, not only in documentary filmmaking, but with the actual life these characters are living. A love for retro and owning a collection of vinyl records don’t mean Jamie has real experience living in the 60’s. Or for Josh, imitating hipster fashion doesn’t make him young, as his friend Fletcher says: “You’re just an old man with a hat.” Taking an example from a recent real-life happening: when we see a veteran news anchor faking accounts to add glamour and self-importance to his reporting we know age is not the dividing line for authenticity. So maybe Baumbach has a point there by cutting Jamie some slack at the end. In the last scene, Josh, wiser now, utters: “He’s not evil; he’s just young.”

Let’s hope authenticity won’t become a dismissible fashion trend like a hat.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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Force Majeure (2014)

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