Noah Baumbach

Marriage Story

09/12/19

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a tale of unravelling, of thwarted hope and bitter frustration. Here, divorce rewrites the past, reframing a loving relationship as a decade-long battle, impoverishing its players while enriching their lawyers. For the latter, the higher the stakes, the brighter the rewards; any sense of peace or perspective is lost to their big-dollar game.

Based on Baumbach’s own experiences during his 2013 split from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, this semi-autobiographical movie is told mainly from theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver)’s point of view. His wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), has had enough. He’s cheated on her, and it’s the final straw. She gave up a promising LA film career and relocated to New York to be with him; her fame ensured publicity for his then-fledgling theatre company. Now he’s successful, fêted as the toast of the avant-garde, and he’s stopped paying attention to what she wants.

And what she wants now is a divorce.

Not only that, she’s also moving back to LA, where she’s been offered a part in a TV pilot. Charlie doesn’t rate TV, and he doesn’t think the project will go anywhere, so he doesn’t object when she takes their eight-year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. But Nicole has no intention of returning – why would she? – and, when the pilot is given the green light, she employs a lawyer to help her wrangle the details.

Laura Dern plays Nora Fanshaw, a fancy LA divorce lawyer with a tendency to kick off her heels and over-sympathise, a vulture feigning friendship. She’s terrific in the role, all hard-as-nails faux-comforter and, along with the other lawyers in the piece (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda), provides much light relief in what is, at times, a harrowing story. Young Azhy Robertson is a delight too: his Henry is wonderfully truculent, never saying quite what his parents want him to, refusing to perform for either one of them, turning his deadpan eyes away.

But this is Adam Driver’s movie, really. Johansson performs well too, but we see more of Charlie, understand his grief better, and his failings too. He despises LA, and we share his sense of helplessness as he’s forced to semi-relocate there in order to be a dad, while his New York directing career begins to suffer his absence. Despite their privilege, he and Nicole are nearly broken by the process, their plain apartments in clear contrast with their lawyers’ glitzy offices and designer clothes.

It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but rather funny and lovely too. Catch it on Netflix now.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Lady Bird

16/02/18

Greta Gerwig is a fascinating woman. After seemingly stumbling into the film business via a series of zero budget, mumblecore efforts, she has quickly demonstrated that she is a force to be reckoned with. The semi-autobiographical Frances Ha, written by Gerwig and directed by Noah Baumbach, plays like early Woody Allen and Lady Bird feels very much like a prequel to that film, with Saoirse Ronan stepping up to the plate to play a teenage version of Gerwig. From the opening sequence where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson argues with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in a moving car – and then throws herself out of it rather than continue the conversation – we are left in no doubt that this is the story of a troublesome teen, who is likely to get her own way in the end.

Christine lives in Sacramento but longs to go to college in New York, where she believes ‘culture lives’. But it isn’t as easy as that. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), recently lost his job, her adopted step brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), seems in no hurry to get one ,and its pretty much left to Marion, a psychiatric nurse, to bring home the bacon. Little wonder the thought of paying for a place at an Ivy League University doesn’t figure highly on her agenda. She and Christine have a troubled relationship and it’s this, more than anything else, that lies at the heart of this powerful and beguiling film, which Gerwig has chosen to direct herself. Typically, she handles it with great aplomb, somehow managing to make the running time fly past and coaxing wonderful performances from everyone involved, especially from Ronan and Metcalf, who make a winning combination.

The story is often very funny (a scene where the a drama group is run by a physical exercise coach is a particular stand out), but it’s powerful enough to occasionally tug at the heartstrings too. I particularly like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s best friend, Julie, and there’s also a nice cameo from Timothee Chalomet as one of Christine’s patently unsuitable boyfriends. Oscar nominations have been announced and, who knows, in the present climate, the establishment might finally be ready to reward another female director, and Lady Bird could well be a surprise winner.

Whatever the outcome, this is a sublime piece of film-making that never puts a foot wrong and demonstrates only too clearly that Greta Gerwig is a talent to be reckoned with.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

30/10/17

Hold the front page! Adam Sandler has made a good film! No, seriously, I’m not making this up. He’s one of the featured performers in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and he’s pretty damned good in it.

Of course, those who know these things will already be aware that, in 2002, he made a film called Punch Drunk Love directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he was pretty good in that too. (At a push, I’d even argue that The Wedding Singer is a decent movie.) But even his most avid fans will have to admit that such occurrences are pretty rare and that most of his considerable cinematic output is either to be avoided like the plague or to be viewed in that ‘so bad its good’ ironic sort of way.

Here, Sandler plays Danny, the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a once acclaimed sculptor who, through a combination of bad luck and bad business decisions, now finds himself coasting on his previous successes, doomed to watch helplessly as other, less talented (at least in his estimation) artists, receive all the adulation that he thinks is his by right. Because of Harold’s single-minded determination to bolster his own ego, Danny has never really enjoyed anything approaching a career (he’s a failed musician), but has pretty much devoted his life to helping his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), achieve her ambitions to become a film maker.

Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is also terribly unfulfilled, the kind of character who drifts along through life going wherever destiny takes her and it’s clear that she too has suffered because of her father’s emotional distance. Harold is now bumbling through a marriage (his fourth) to the alcoholic Maureen (Emma Thompson), but, when an unexpected illness threatens to carry him off, Danny and Jean’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), comes to visit. Matthew is a highly-motivated and very successful businessman, who is trying to sort out his father’s financial straits but, when the three offspring come together for the first time in years, old resentments soon come bubbling to the surface…

This is the kind of territory Baumbach excels at and he has an absolute field day here. The story is told in episodes, each one jumping forward a little in time and there’s a delightful recurring motif of Danny losing his temper and the camera cutting away as if to censor his outbursts. Hoffman is excellent as the highly manipulative Harold and Stiller delivers a nice performance as a man being torn between caring for his father and punching him on the nose. There’s even a delightful cameo from Sigourney Weaver as… well, Sigourney Weaver. If you are expecting to see this at the cinema anytime soon, don’t be misled. This is another Netflix Original, ready for viewing at any time by its customers. However much traditional filmgoers may resent this phenomenon, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. Netflix has recently announced that they will be ramping up their production slate – and, as long as they continue to make quality films like this one, I say good luck to them.

Tune in and check this out – if only for the novelty of seeing an Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t make you reach of the ‘off’ switch.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

While We’re Young

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13/04/15

Reviewing Noah Baumbach’s previous film, Frances Ha, I remarked that it was the best Woody Allen movie in ages and I think that still holds true for While We’re Young. The spirit of Woody in his prime haunts this sprightly comedy, though perhaps this is mid-period Woody, around the time of say, Hannah and Her Sisters. This isn’t intended as a criticism, by the way, but as a compliment of the highest order. Even Woody Allen can’t make movies like this any more.

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a once-promising documentary maker who has stalled on his second project, still incomplete after ten years of tinkering with it. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is a film producer who works alongside her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin) a documentary maker of near legendary fame, a cross which Josh has had to bear for most of his life. When Josh and Leslie encounter cool young film-maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his free-spirited girlfriend Darby (Amanda Siefried), they soon find themselves being inexorably drawn into their quirky universe, complete with a change of wardrobe and a visit to a spiritual vomiting course. Jamie professes to be Josh’s greatest fan… and he soon has him working as his collaborator on a new film project – but is Jamie everything he claims to be? Or does he have more mercenary objectives in mind?

The film is funniest when examining the ‘chalk and cheese’ aspects of the two male leads. While Josh plays CD’s, Jamie prefers vinyl. Where Josh frequents Facebook, Jamie prefers scribbling down obscure messages on bits of paper. It soon becomes clear that Jamie is actually a total jerk. Despite that, it’s also obvious that he’s likely to make a big success at his chosen vocation. There are plenty of laughs along the way, but the story falls down somewhat with a conclusion which suggests that people cannot really be complete until they become parents. Since Josh and Cornelia have spent most of the movie professing how lucky they are to have escaped that particular ‘trap,’ it seems a little facile to have them both willingly falling headlong into it.

Still, for all that, this is that rarest of things, an intelligent comedy that hits most of its intended targets with ease. It may not quite be in the same league as Frances Ha, but it’s not so bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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