The movie the attorneys didn’t want to be made.
In which a loving but separating couple (played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) blow any possibility of a harmonious separation by bringing in their legal aides.
It’s a sad old movie in which the couple’s divorce seesaws from still best friends to raging monsters. Their natural inclination seems to favour behaviour at the friendlier end of the spectrum, but by employing teams of attorneys (at great cost), whose only interests are fiscal and competitive, any of the harmony that remains between Driver and Johansson is cruelly exposed and used as a weakness.
In the hands of a director less skilled than Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha) we could easily have ended up with either a black comedy or an overwrought drama, but this finds a line between the two, by steering a complex and subtle, and lengthy, dialogue (he is the writer) that does not allow the viewer to particularly side with either protagonist – both have their faults and their virtues – but it’s the actions of their attorneys that bring out the worst, not the best, in them.
That said my wife and I both fell for Driver’s side of the story (and only found out afterwards that the movie is based on Baumbach’s own experience of divorcing Jennifer Jason Leigh, so maybe it’s not quite as agnostic as we thought.
It’s a slow build, with several long monologues that just finish, mostly, before they outstay their welcomes.
But there are also moments of humour. The visit of a social worker is laugh out loud funny and the rehearsal scene where Johansson prepares her terrified sister to hand over the divorce papers is likewise an absolute comic joy.
But overall it’s both deeply personal and very affecting at times, more than once I was reaching for the Kleenex, and part of that is down to the casting and the highly personal cinematography that shows off the two leads at their most naked (emotionally) and vulnerable with long, lingering close ups on each of them. That’s one reason that the big screen is always better than the TV for feature films. Like The Irishman, though, this is a Netflix original and will not be on the big screen for long.
Driver is at the top of his game and that means there are three serious Oscar best actor contenders this year – himself, De Niro and Phoenix. All three would win in any average year. Driver’s one take performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at a piano bar is a real highlight and is about a man’;s lack of commitment. It’s an excellent counterpoint to Randy Newman’s typically accomplished, and in parts quite jaunty, score.
Johannson puts in a career-best shift. Not only is his beauty put to one side . No make up and often unflattering close ups, but she acts her socks off.
Also of great note is laura Dern’s performance as her lawyer and a cameo role for a sprightly, 83 year old, Alan Alda.
It’s a slow burn but it comes highly recommended from me (and my wife). Just go see it in the cinema.