Great movies – by which I mean movies that are great to you – generally reveal themselves in a single sitting. But extraordinary movies tend to reveal themselves over time, becoming incrementally or exponentially better and better with each new exposure. Call me a masochist, but I've now seen Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half hours of The Irishman four times over a single week, and every time I've returned to this Netflix release, I'm newly wowed by its brilliance. On a first viewing, I loved Netflix's new Marriage Story with nearly equal fervor, and a day after seeing it, eagerly returned to writer/director Noah Baumbach's dramatic comedy for a second go-around. My verdict? It's a great movie. Just not an extraordinary one. And maybe, when all is said and done, not even a great one – merely, or rather “merely,” greatly entertaining.
Stupendously portrayed by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Charlie and Nicole are a dream of a celebrity couple: he the revered director of an experimental theatre company in New York, she a former Hollywood starlet and the company's resident star, and both of them parents to an adorable, if oddly infantilized, eight-year-old son named Henry. (When the couple returns from a night out, their babysitter can't help but blurt “God, you guys are so attractive,” and she isn't wrong.) Charlie's and Nicole's seemingly mutual affection is detailed, spectacularly, in Marriage Story's opening minutes, which find Charlie and Nicole expounding on one another's finest qualities while images of the spouses, in all their domestic bliss, underscore the deep love that has long held them together. Then the reveries end, and we learn that Charlie's and Nicole's tender words – words left unspoken in the film's reality – were simply part of an exercise demanded by a mediator hired to guide the couple through the first steps of their eventual divorce. The rest of Baumbach's latest consequently details the excruciating legal and emotional processes as Charlie and Nicole separate for good, he with a Broadway production of Electra on the horizon, she with the leading role in the pilot for an L.A.-based TV series, and Henry at the whims of wherever his parents, or their lawyers, tell him he has to be.
This might make Marriage Story sound agonizing, and to be sure, the movie has its share of devastating moments, particularly the no-holds-barred verbal altercation late in the film that leaves Charlie and Nicole (and us) in a state of weepy exhaustion. Yet Baumbach, bless him, is a natural, helpless comic talent, and even though his latest is inspired by its creator's divorce from, and custody battle with, Jennifer Jason Leigh, I'm not sure a scene passes that doesn't contain at least a whiff of humor – and oftentimes far more than a whiff. Baumbach's finest releases to date – 2005's The Squid & the Whale and 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) – were both as wryly hilarious as they were trenchant and affecting, and the filmmaker finds ample opportunities for laughs here, too. Even when Nicole is delivering a minutes-long monologue about Charlie's failings to her California lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), it's interrupted by the crying, noshing woman's praise for her attorney's delicious tea and cookies. (Dern, as blisteringly funny as she's ever been on-screen, accepts the cookie compliment with a smile and a faux-humble “I'll send you home with some.”) And Charlie may be in emotional hell, but it's constantly leavened with verbal jokes and sight gags; even the scene of him dejectedly waiting for his son to arrive for trick-or-treating is treated as farce, given that Charlie is dressed, with hysterical appropriateness, as The Invisible Man.
In truth, and despite the pain at its center, Marriage Story almost always works best as a comedy. Dern elicits laughs from her very first line, which finds Nora apologizing to Nicole for looking “so schleppy” when the matrimonial attorney in tight slacks clearly looks like a million bucks. But the lawyers eventually hired by Charlie – first, a curmudgeonly sweetheart played by Alan Alda, then a braying shark portrayed by Ray Liotta – are just as riotous in completely character-driven ways, as are Nicole's flighty sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) and her endearingly overbearing mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty). The scene in which Cassie is goaded into serving divorce papers to Charlie (with Wever, Hagerty, and Johansson all in top comedic form) already feels like one for the ages, and there are divinely amusing bits involving Wallace Shawn and the rest of Charlie's and Nicole's New York stage troupe, and the frequently misguided crew members on Nicole's pilot, and the reward system for Henry (the wonderfully deadpan Azhy Robertson) as he completes a poop, and … .
So why, after a second viewing, did Marriage Story leave me feeling emptier than it did on a first, especially considering the things I initially found funny seemed even more so? Partly, I think, because the movie began to feel unfortunately lopsided. It would be hard to argue that Baumbach doesn't at least try to present both sides of his divorce saga equally; Nicole's long, empathetic speech near the start gives gravitas to her complaints, and Charlie is routinely shown to be the self-obsessed, unsharing, obtuse artiste she claims he's become. But it became pretty evident on a second exposure that the narrative, and the film, are a bit too firmly on Team Charlie. Nicole adjusts relatively quickly to the new living arrangements; Charlie frets and fumes as he feels the rug being unfairly pulled from beneath him. Nicole has her child's undivided love and attention; Charlie has to continually fight for it. Nicole has no apparent money woes; that's all Charlie appears to have. Even the movie's final shot feels askew. It's possible that a reasonable detente has been achieved, but it's hardly one that both parties are feeling with a similar sense of acceptance. Baumbach's most frustrating movies, by which I mean the non-Meyerowitz ones that star Ben Stiller, have a rather obnoxious strain of self-pity coursing through them, and despite Driver's Herculean efforts, this latest endeavor isn't entirely immune from that failing.
My bigger issue, however, lies in how sadly inorganic many of the centerpiece moments feel. Much has already been made about the near-climactic rendition of “Being Alive,” from Stephen Sondheim's Company, that Charlie performs in a New York piano bar. Driver is in lovely voice and the song selection makes sense. But it makes too much sense; Sondheim's lyrics are such an on-the-nose analysis of Charlie's dilemma that the scene isn't remotely believable as a genuine happenstance. Ditto Dern's largely praised speech in which Nora explains the disparity between what constitutes a good mother and a good father by using Jesus' mother and God as examples. It's an audience-grabbing show-stopper, to be sure, and feels like the sort of thing this lawyer might have told dozens, if not hundreds, of clients over the years. (It also feels exactly like the Best Supporting Actress clip that producers are gonna go with when Dern is nominated at this year's Oscars.) But nothing about its presentation suggests that we're meant to take it as anything other than an in-the-moment tirade, and as such, it's too self-consciously clever – to obviously “written” – to be truly effective. You can, and should, applaud Dern's brio in delivering the words. You might still find the speech itself hopelessly phony.
A second viewing revealed additional weak spots such as these: the filming of Nicole's pilot, which makes it look as though someone bizarrely found a way to adapt Darren Aronosky's mother! to the small screen; the sitcom-ready cuteness in the banter between Charlie's theatre-troupe members mid-Electra rehearsal; the narrative convenience, or maybe just contrivance, of Charlie receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant at the exact moment those accompanying dollars will come most in handy. So no: Marriage Story may not be altogether “great.” But Driver and Johansson, performing with career-peak magnificence and emotional transparency, are magical both together and apart. The ensemble cast is sublime. The dialogue has unmistakable wit and style. The compositions are elegant and the editing (by Jennifer Lame) cutting-edge sharp. Randy Newman's melancholy score is one of his loveliest in ages. And over the course of the film's 135 minutes, I don't think there's a boring minute to be found. It might not be great, but it's still an incredibly great time.
PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE
If you visit one of our area cineplexes, you can see – though probably not for much longer – something titled Playmobil: The Movie. Maybe you've heard of it. Probably not. “Based on” the successful line of toys geared to very small children, it's kind of like The Lego Movie if everyone involved with The Lego Movie were slightly brain-damaged. It has dinosaurs and robots and Vikings. It has a fairy godmother and gladiators and a super-spy with his own theme song and the voice of Daniel Radcliffe. It has chase scenes – lots and lots of chase scenes – and sibling sentiment and a plasticized hippie in a food truck. And while most of writer/director Lino DiSalvo's outing is animated in the Lego Movie manner, it opens with live actor Anya Taylor-Joy performing a musical number reminiscent of Emma Stone's prep for her big night out in La La Land, followed by the off-screen killing of Taylor-Joy's parents in a scene seemingly pulled directly from Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me. It is, in other words, an unholy mess, and probably like most of you, I was all set to completely skip it. (The movie's gross of $660,000 gives it the fourth-worst opening weekend ever for a domestic release on more than 2,000 screens.)
But then the film's Thursday-at-4 p.m. debut happened to coincide with my babysitting gig for my favorite five-year-old who loves going to the movies, so I figured what the hell. Suffice it to say that while I was in a state of not-entirely-unhappy shock from the start, my young friend liked the food-truck guy, and considering he was voiced by Jim Gaffigan, no one could blame her. She liked Radcliffe's suave Rex Dasher, and liked his car, too. She liked it when the Playmobil characters fell down or screamed. (She did not like the news of Taylor-Joy's dead folks, saying “I hope my parents don't die in an accident” and leaving me verklempt for the rest of the afternoon.) And she loved that Playmobil: The Movie was the rare cineplex entertainment in which she was allowed – encouraged, even – to talk as much and as loud as she wanted. For understandable reasons, we were the only ones there.
For reviews of Dark Waters, Honey Boy, and Waves, visit “Barely Living through Chemistry.”