By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC
Writer and director Noah Baumbach infamously wrote “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” a bizarre writing credit in an otherwise notable career. The reason behind such a degrading blunder? Rumors have it he wrote the script to finance his divorce. Perhaps it’s those experiences, times spent in relationships and those in the throes of divorce, that allow the man to have insights into the world of Western courtship.
Some critics, myself included, have disparaged Baumbach for his continual tears shed and stories centered on those who are very privileged and his perpetually anguished view of life. That said, he writes what he knows and writes well—his characters are not without fault or pain because no human is. This is most apparent in Adam Driver’s Charlie, the co-protagonist of Baumbach’s latest work, “Marriage Story,” as he splits from his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).
While “Marriage Story” is no “Kramer vs. Kramer,” it’s awfully close. Baumbach takes us through the humility, anger and, ultimately, love that is twisted into this couple’s divorce. The writer-director creates deep characters through simple actions, like when Nicole helps Charlie install the booster seat in his rental car for their son, or when Charlie adds plants to his apartment to make it seem more family-friendly to sway the visit of a child custody worker—a thinly veiled, but very human, sham.
Two scenes stand out as exemplary in displaying this simple and bare humanity. One is the climax quarrel of Nicole and Charlie, where everything is said that shouldn’t be. You may have been there before. The other is a poignant moment where Charlie’s son asks him to show the visiting child custody worker the trick he does with his pocket knife, a trick he used to do for Nicole and their son where he fake stabs his arm, but this time, in front of the social worker, he actually stabs himself. It’s a pitiful moment that stands as a metaphor for the loss of his family.
Known for his New York movies, Baumbach often uses the city as a background character. In “Marriage Story” it’s Los Angeles that takes on this role—glitzy, sprawling and full of traffic when Charlie, a New York native battling to hold custody in the Big Apple, visits, and then sun-soaked and blissful when Nicole takes the screen.
Baumbach films will always be worth watching for their complex characters and tone. And it isn’t all bad—the director leaves us on a high note after nearly two hours of ache, with an amicable divorced brace in a Los Angeles no longer bleak, but full of life and sunshine and, curiously, family.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found skiing or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.