Shared hatred overpowering the love of a child will ultimately be one of the key lessons they face as the movie moves aggressively between unspoken pain and passive-aggressive lash-outs, and for nearly two-thirds of its two-hour running time I simply sat there in discomfort, unsympathetic with nearly every situation they faced. If Baumbach’s chief argument is that separation can turn us into monsters, then his were simply wearing false masks over happier times. Notice, for instance, how jarring their chemistry becomes in the opening scene – in voice-over we hear Charlie (Driver) list all the things he loves about his devoted wife Nicole (Johansson) while the camera spies them in snapshots of happier moments. She volunteers the same sort of praise: small and specific observations rather than broader suggestions. Then there is the next scene, featuring both seated with a marriage counselor, who encourages them to share those feelings in the open. He patronizes her about sharing her feelings. She snaps defensively and storms out of the room. This is not modest symbolism pointing towards more grandiose explosions that seem destined in the later scenes; rather, it a primary reveal that sets the tone for how we will feel about them for the remainder of the ordeal.
The whole movie plays like that – the prospective divorcees are seen exchanging faux platitudes and silent discomfort while the mechanics of their separation privately absorb everything, including sanity and budding professional lives. He, a theater director initially stationed in New York, has just been granted a large sum of money to take his latest show to Broadway. She, a Hollywood actress who spent most of their marriage playing in his shows, has relocated to Los Angeles to star in a sitcom. Their initial agreement is to resolve their issues without the interference of lawyers, although Nicole is quick to violate that promise after meeting with Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), apparently a coveted treasure in California legal matters affecting wives. The movie’s greatest scene is a long unbroken shot of Johansson’s face as Nicole tearfully recounts the erosion of her love affair, having stemmed from his inability to be supportive of her individual aspirations outside of his theater troupe. The next day, as he arrives in L.A. to visit their son, she calmly serves him with divorce papers while he quietly brews somewhere between acceptance and feelings of betrayal.
He does not, alas, see the writing on the wall. Early on, when he meets with hotshot attorneys advising him to fight for custody in New York, where courts are less rigorous about siding with the mother, he walks away doubtless that Nicole will play fair with him. His assertion is quelled after a threatening call from Nora, who indicates that a judge in California will grant his wife everything she asks if he does not respond to the summons adequately. And so begins a long and drawn out exchange of wits and legal jargon where the couple is relegated to backdrop while their showboating lawyers duke it out in office meetings and stuffy courtrooms. This method, we quickly learn, provides a slow boil that will eventually consume private exchanges, allowing them to progress from silently awkward to cynical and condescending. Their defining moment is a climactic scene where they explode in rage over all the unresolved feelings they share, until each is left collapsed in fits of tears.
That scene, much like Nicole’s own private confessional, goes to the heart of a good movie lurking somewhere inside the footage Baumbach has shot. But the rest is so littered in overthought spectacle that audiences ought to be filing for alimony payments. Every scene, every sanctimonious indulgence, is but a test for people who seem like they have calmly walked into a bloodbath but are unwilling to relent until the 11th hour, when all the wounds have run dry. That does a great disservice to the potential for plausible drama, and instead fills the movie with a sense of phony self-awareness. A more direct movie would have dealt with the anger and pain with more focus, much like “Scenes from a Marriage” or “Kramer vs. Kramer.” This one wants to hide it unnecessarily for the sake of… what? To conceal their young child from witnessing it? Or protecting relatives that are hoping for an amicable separation? Baumbach shows the supporting players in such a state of fog that they would have barely noticed a bridge collapse, much less the death of a romance.
That leaves us with a trio of lawyers who would not even make for compelling courtroom drama. Alan Alda does well as an unassuming attorney who attempts to offer sound advice to Charlie in the early stages of divorce, but Ray Liotta as a bullish acquisition is simply too ravenous for this material (by Charlie’s own admission, “I hired him because I needed my own asshole”). And Laura Dern, always so well-suited to roles that highlight her natural eloquence, seems driven by gimmicky ulterior motives. Observe her in an outburst late in the film where she dismisses Charlie’s negotiating on the basis of his gender, before launching into a monologue that rouses suspicion about her own troubled past relationships. This is not so much a feministic gesture, however, as it is a device meant to undermine her ability to fairly represent her client. Ask yourself this: had the outburst come from the male lawyer and basically referred to his competitor with a sexist slur, would anyone on set have felt comfortable filming it?
Baumbach is not a novice to these sorts of troublesome devices. His “Margot at the Wedding,” while uneven, contained some pointed observations about how people’s eccentric demeanors can undermine the weight of serious personal dilemmas. His splendid “The Squid and the Whale,” meanwhile, told a similar story of divorce from a more reliable witness: that of the two children who were all watching it unfold. By asking us to assume empathy with these stubborn mules, however, he shows he is pitching outside a dependable comfort zone. Charlie and Nicole’s messy relationship is no more complex or problematic than whatever any random couple might be arguing about while standing in line at Starbucks. Fortunately for their child, he is never present long enough to actually detect the underlying venom they exchange in small amounts. He is the lucky one; spending more than just a few minutes with either of these people, and I too would have wanted to wander into my bedroom to play with Legos.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Comedy (US); 2019; Rated R; Running Time: 137 Minutes
Adam Driver: Charlie
Scarlett Johansson: Nicole
Laura Dern: Nora Fanshaw
Ray Liotta: Jay Marotta
Alan Alda: Bert Spitz
Julie Hagerty: Sandra
Wallace Shawn: Frank
Produced by Noah Baumbach, Leslie Converse, David Heyman, Marshall Johnson, Tracey Landon and Craig Shilowich; Directed and written by Noah Baumbach