As we were leaving the movie, I told my wife how much I loved it. I said, “This is why they shouldn’t remake or reboot movies. They borrowed a lot from Kramer vs. Kramer, yet it was Noah Baumbach’s original take on divorce.”
The wife replied, “Just because it’s about divorce, you’re comparing it to Kramer vs. Kramer?”
No. It was because of a handful of scenes that were very similar.
Writer/director Baumbach’s first movie, the brilliant The Squid and the Whale, was about divorce, and I didn’t think about Kramer once.
This movie gives you the feel of that Oscar winning film, with dashes of Cassavetes, Bergman, Woody, and Ephron…but it’s all Baumbach and it’s great.
She liked the movie, but not quite as much as I. She felt there were times during some dramatic speeches, that it felt like actors showing off that they could act. And she is right about that, although it never bothered me all that much. Especially since there were only a few scenes like that. I was a bit more perplexed as to why each lead sang a song from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at different times. I guess when you’re doing a love letter to theatre and divorce all in one film…
The movie starts brilliantly, as we hear Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) read the list they’ve compiled about all the things they love about each other. The cliff notes version — he’s a theatre director that loves what he does off-Broadway. She’s an actress that gave up what would have been a successful acting career, to star in his low-key productions. What could go wrong, right? [side note: this is the third movie I’ve seen this year that involves a play being staged].
Their marriage counselor (Robert Smigel) wants them to read the lists, but they won’t (even though we heard them in voice-over narration). The couple has a son named Henry (Azhy Robertson), and Nicole’s bringing him to L.A. while she tries to land a TV pilot. Grandma lives there (the always delightful Julie Hagerty). Charlie is trying to bring a revival of “Electra” to Broadway, and he’s landed a big grant to do it. He’s a bit shocked when he finds out his wife is considering a divorce.
Nicole gets a big L.A. divorce attorney (Laura Dern) that’s an interesting character. Some will find her to be caring, but I found her a bit conniving. Perhaps she just bothered me because it felt like she was manipulating a vulnerable woman into spending lots of money on her services, whereas his attorney (Alan Alda) is a sweetheart that wants to stay positive and talk about what is best for the kid, etc. That being said, Dern delivers a few good scenes that might earn her a Supporting Actress nominee.
Charlie drops the nice lawyer for a bulldog that will play dirty (he’s played by Ray Liota, who’s basically playing his Chantix character).
There were so many scenes in this that I loved. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you laugh.
There was a frustrating Halloween scene for Charlie that is something that feels like a situation we’ve all been in (interesting that he’s the Invisible Man, when he’s the one not enjoying the family fun of the day). Oh, and having Nicole dress as Bowie was clever (although Bambauch played Modern Love in Frances Ha, so…maybe he should give the Bowie stuff a rest). Speaking of other movies, why was Johansson always wearing her pants so high? Was she influenced by the cast of her film Her?
It’s weird the different things that bothered my wife and I in this movie. She thought the social worker was too awkward and weird. I thought that was some fun comic relief.
I didn’t like the idea that an affair was revealed so early on in the movie. That makes it hard to like one of the characters. One of the enjoyable things about Kramer vs. Kramer was that we’re rooting for the dad the entire time. Yet once we finally hear the wife’s side of things, it makes you think. This movie never had an epiphany that rivals that. You’re just watching two people that are both likable, interesting, and at times, jerks.
Critics are calling this Baumbach’s best picture. I thought Squid was better. That was loosely based on his parents’ divorce (dad is novelist Jonathan Baumbach and mom was Village Voice writer Georgia Brown). This film is based on his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (I’d love to hear her thoughts on the film).
The film is tightly edited, despite being longer than it needed to be. It had a charming score of romantic chamber music, done by Randy Newman (you won’t have to listen to him sing). It doesn’t just rely on tired tropes of a couple fighting.
So despite a bit of over-acting, this is the type of film that fits right in my wheelhouse. It’s one of the best pictures of the year..
4 stars out of 5.
Bonus points if you spot singer Tunde Adebimpe (Rachel Getting Married) of the great band TV on the Radio.