Sunday, December 15, 2019

Marriage Story


Husband and wife read a letter they are writing for one another, in their heads, because she refuses to recite hers aloud during their marriage counseling session. Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) has been her husband’s muse onstage since she left a promising movie career in the West Coast to be with him in New York. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is not at all wealthy but has enough to keep his small theater group afloat. Considered as a genius stage director in his social circles, he is prepping for their Broadway debut of Electra, just as his wife receives an offer for a TV pilot shoot in California. She decides to move back to her family residence in Los Angeles taking their son in tow, in what he believes to be a temporary move. He is then caught unawares when she hires hotshot divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) out of the blue, initiating a divorce proceeding that might just put a definitive end to their once happy marriage.

All this time I thought ScarJo already had an Oscar nomination for Girl with a Pearl Earring? In any case, Marriage Story is not a bad debut for the Academy nomination club. Landing a role of a lifetime in a lucrative franchise is good as far as big bucks are concerned, but people will always end up associating you with that persona your whole life. This film is a reminder that Johansson is not just a pretty face who can kick ass, but also a legit actress who can portray an emotionally provocative role worthy of praise.

Of course, the favorite sequence will always be that heavily advertised argument scene between husband and wife at his California home upon realizing their divorce proceedings are tearing their souls and finances apart. Each party hits hard with every line and it looks like nobody is bound to win, until he pulls off an upset with that raw and emotionally charged, “I'd hope you get an illness and then get hit by a car and die!” before falling to his knees and weeping like a child. Jesus fucking Christ, the intensity almost had me falling off my bed. MATCH POINT: Black Widow = 0; Kylo Ren = 1!

The only other performance I can use as a comparative basis for Driver’s acting is his stiff role as aforementioned Darth Vader wannabe in the latest Star Wars trilogy. Witnessing his acting chops here is truly a revelation if you are unfamiliar with his body of work. While most of his scenes with Johansson can be likened to an evenly matched game of performance art Ping-Pong, he gets the benefit of singing a brooding rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive, and then concludes his character’s story arc with a heart-wrenching recitation of the letter Nicole wouldn’t read to him out loud. Well damn bruh, who knew you can act?

Acting aside, there are many things to consider, many of them cultural, if you are not American and are seeing this movie for the first time. For us Filipino moviegoers, we are used to formulaic and saccharine romantic comedies where boy meets girl, they go through the motions of courtship, then have a shouting match before experiencing a near death life changing experience that serves as a bridge for their happy ending. Marriage Story is not that kind of narrative, and the deconstruction of a love affair in its final stages is not something that is popular here, not to mention we don’t have divorce in the Philippines.

We’re staunch Catholics, go figure. We do have annulment but it is ridiculously expensive and takes a very long time to process. Your marriage didn’t work out? We’re so sorry to hear that, but do stay married for the kids. You can have mistresses if you like and reinforce our land's outdated macho culture. You, woman, can’t, because you have to keep the household together and be a martyr unless you want to be slut shamed for the rest of your life. Why else do you think are mistress-themed films and TV series so damn popular in this country?

In that sense, Marriage Story is also educational to be totally frank. Great acting aside, it also serves as a good introduction to the business of divorce and how lawyers see it as a lucrative source of livelihood in countries like the United States. Perhaps that’s also why Dern is raking in the accolades in the Best Supporting Actress race, because she epitomizes divorce proceedings so well that you just have to throw golden statuettes her way. Overall, Marriage Story is Kramer Versus Kramer version 2019, with both parties given equal onscreen exposure for a more balanced form of storytelling.

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