By John H. Foote
The greatest films of divorce are often demanding, difficult films that have the courage to ask the audience not to take a side. Yet as great as An Unmarried Woman (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Shoot the Moon (1982) are superb films, a side is usually taken, we are after all human.
You can feel the raw nerves of the characters in anguish in this powerful film about the breakdown and subsequent divorce of a wealthy, successful young couple. Based on his own marriage and its end with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, director-writer Noah Baumbach drew heavily on the painful process of ending something once thought to be forever. Unspeakably brave, there have been criticisms that he was easy on himself, but I disagree, I found it very balanced.
Think about it. When you marry someone, is ending the marriage even a germ of a thought? Of course not yet so many marriages end in ugly circumstances, and a couple that once loved each other may end up hating each other.
Baumbach is on familiar ground here, having directed the exquisite The Squid and the Whale (2005) which should have earned Oscar nominations for the young filmmaker and his lead actors Laura Linsey and Jeff Daniels. With his own divorce the subject of this scorching film, he digs deep into some obviously painful subjects to bring truth to the screen.
The two young actors in the film, the gifted Adam Driver and the ever surprising Scarlett Johansson, are, respectively, Charlie, an acclaimed stage director, and Nicole, an actress who moved from L.A. to build a theatre together with Charlie, eventually giving up her career to parent their child. As his fame has grown, she feels left behind and begins to resent giving up her acting for his career. Their once idyllic marriage is in trouble, and she suspects Charlie to be cheating with a stage manager he works with at the theatre.
Separated she is intrigued by a lucrative offer from Hollywood.
When offered a TV pilot she flies to L.A. with her child and lands the part. What he does not see coming is while there she files for divorce with a high powered, rather angry divorce attorney, who is quite prepared to destroy Charlie. Looking out for her client, Nora (Laura Dern) initially might come across as a man hater but only because she clearly understands how woman are treated in society.
The divorce proves to be a wounding experience as they lash out in anger at one another, making vicious accusations that each knows is not true, and hateful attacks on each other. Charlie finds himself a lawyer but his does not wish to go for the throat as Nora does.
As they prepare for a ruling about custody they each look deep inside themselves and realize they each have a great deal of good, much to love. By the end, nerves have been shredded, welts have been carved into each persons flesh, but there is a tiny glimmer of hope.
Johansson is an absolute revelation as Nicole, going places as an actress she has never gone before. Oh make no mistake, she has been very good before, especially in Ghost World (2001), Lost in Translation (2003) and her supporting turn in Jo Jo Rabbit (2019), but never has she dove so deep into the anguish and despair of her characters. She is breathtaking to behold in the film, finding reservoirs of cruelty she did not know existed, but also a capacity for forgiveness, hope and love I am not sure he knew were there. If she is snubbed for an Oscar, if the Academy is so short sighted, so stupid, I am done with the Academy. This is a major performance, for the ages, and this magnificent actress deserves to be acknowledged for her work in this and Jo Jo Rabbit.
Comparisons to Marlon Brando have been made about Adam Driver since he was first seen as the brooding boyfriend on Girls for HBO. This guy is a mercurial talent, blessed with naturalism as an actor, that rare quality of making every line sound as though he were in the moment, speaking it for the first time. His soulful eyes allow us to feel what he feels and it became apparent quite some time ago this actor was so much more than the towering villain Kyle Ren in the Star Wars reboot. Nominated for an Oscar last year in BlacKkKlansman (2018) he is at this writing the favourite to win Best Actor for his stunning performance as Charlie. Sure he might be obsessed with his work, a narcissistic personality but he adores Nicole and their son, and is genuinely devastated by this event. His weakness might be he recognizes too late, so does Nicole. Driver is a confident, bold actor, quite fearless and the chemistry between he and Johansson is obvious from the opening. Their devastating argument, in which both barrels of their weaponry are fired, is painful because you can feel any love they had slipping away, curdling like bad milk, rotting like spoiled meat. It reminds us how fast everything can change.
As fire breathing Nora, Actress Laura Dern continues her rampage through Hollywood, scoring award after award for her seething work in Big Little Lies and its second season, and here she is equally monstrous. Quite prepared to get aggressive and ugly, she cannot quite understand why Nicole wants to be civil. Dern is in the mix for Best Supporting Actress and has already won the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Alan Alda gives a lovely performance as an affable lawyer who himself has been divorced and has no need to get toxic with the other side. Such a fine actor, he elevates every scene he is in.
Baumbach directs actors beautifully, in the same fashion as seventies icon Sidney Lumet. The truth is paramount to Baumbach, and obviously his actors, and every frame of this film rings of joyous and painful truths.
Bravo Netflix, another winner. Easily among the best films of the year.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.