BRIAN VINER: A darker shade of Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story

A darker shade of Scarlett: Dazzling Johansson and Adam Driver lead a stellar cast in Marriage Story – a painful but brilliant study of divorce, writes BRIAN VINER

Marriage Story (15)

Verdict: Painful but brilliant

Rating:

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

Verdict: High-octane fun 

Rating:

For such an accomplished storyteller, Noah Baumbach isn’t great at dreaming up film titles.

His last picture was 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories and now, also for Netflix following a brief theatrical run, comes Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, with Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and the great Alan Alda all sparkling in supporting roles.

This time, however, there is more to his title than meets the eye. Marriage Story implies a tale of two people in love, and it is, but it focuses on how their relationship sours and how that souring is intensified as soon as lawyers become involved. The film could equally be called Divorce, American-Style.

That makes it sound like painful viewing, and indeed I bumped into a friend coming out of a screening, who has recently been through a marital break-up herself. She admitted to feeling more than a little bruised by the truths in what she had just seen.

It seems more than likely that Baumbach based some of those truths on the 2013 break-up of his own eight-year marriage to the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Marriage Story implies a tale of two people in love, and it is, but it focuses on how their relationship sours and how that souring is intensified as soon as lawyers become involved. The film could equally be called Divorce, American-Style. (Pictured, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the film)

Marriage Story implies a tale of two people in love, and it is, but it focuses on how their relationship sours and how that souring is intensified as soon as lawyers become involved. The film could equally be called Divorce, American-Style. (Pictured, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the film)

After all, he has form in making a spectacle of divorce. His 2005 film The Squid And The Whale was inspired by his own parents’ split, and its impact on his childhood.

Yet for all his forensic expertise in unpicking the knots in human relationships, which we see again and again in his films, humour is usually present. There is a seam of comedy running through Marriage Story, never too far from the surface sadness and turmoil.

Baumbach and his actors mine it superbly. There’s an uproariously funny scene involving the cack-handed serving of divorce papers.

Johansson plays Nicole, an actress married to a playwright, Charlie (Driver), and living in New York City. At the start of the film we see them both talking about each other’s virtues with apparent enthusiasm, but it quickly turns out this is just an exercise, suggested by the counsellor mediating their separation.

Their relationship, founded on all the right things — mutual respect, regard, attraction, love — has already fallen apart.

The reasons why they no longer feel compatible aren’t terribly substantial.

   

More from Brian Viner For The Daily Mail…

The final straw for her is him not knowing her mobile phone number, ‘conclusive’ evidence that he is completely self-absorbed (and a reminder to me to learn my wife’s number, and not just rely on speed-dial . . . this film has an insidious way of making you examine your own loving relationship). But there are also sound reasons for them to try to overcome their quarrels, not least their cute eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

For a while it seems as if they might. Then Nicole moves back to her home town, Los Angeles, to work on a TV pilot. There, she is persuaded to hire a hotshot divorce lawyer, Nora (Dern). Nicole tells her that she doesn’t want to be too aggressive over the settlement, that she wants to stay friends with Charlie.

Fat chance. Or this being LA, zero-fat chance. Charlie is also compelled to find a lawyer, who must convince a judge that they are a New York, not an LA, family, giving him a chance of a better deal.

The attorney considered most likely to stand up to nasty Nora is a rottweiler called Jay (Liotta). Unfortunately, he wants a $25,000 retainer then $950 an hour. A wise old-timer called Bert (Alda) is cheaper, though still eye-wateringly expensive.

The rest of the film unfolds with the trivial differences between Nicole and Charlie being inflated by their lawyers into reasons to attack each other.

It’s a story, more multi-layered and cleverly nuanced than many notable chronicles of marriage breakdowns such as Kramer vs Kramer 40 years ago, about the thunderous financial but also emotional cost of divorce, not just for those immediately involved, but also for their relatives and friends.

Driver and Johansson, the latter made to look plainer than usual, both give pitch-perfect performances, sensitive and empathetic.

But it was Dern who ignited a spontaneous burst of applause the first time I saw Marriage Story (which admittedly was at the Venice Film Festival, with lots of demonstrative Italians around).

That was Nora’s marvellous, heartfelt, funny speech about how the modern notion of a good father is only about 30 years old, whereas the maternal prototype has always been Mary, mother of Jesus.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing, beautifully delivered, and the same is so for the entire movie.

Le Mans '66's story is told with terrific gusto by director James Mangold, from a screenplay by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. (Above, Matt Damon and Christian Bale in the movie)

Le Mans ’66’s story is told with terrific gusto by director James Mangold, from a screenplay by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. (Above, Matt Damon and Christian Bale in the movie)

I also greatly enjoyed Le Mans ’66, which might not appeal to anyone not interested in motor sport, but I’m no ‘petrol-head’ and still found it immensely entertaining.

With the help of a high- powered cast led by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the film more simplistically titled Ford v Ferrari in the U.S. tells the true story of how a charismatic British driver called Ken Miles (Bale, treating us to a Brummie accent) and an American car designer called Carroll Shelby (Damon), joined forces in the mid-Sixties to help the Ford Motor Company get into racing as a way of selling more cars and sexing up its somewhat staid image.

Not that ‘sexing up’ was how the stern patrician boss, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), grandson of his namesake, Ford’s founder, would have put it.

Nonetheless, he yearned to take on Ferrari at their own game, particularly once his counterpart there, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), had snubbed his takeover bid. And there was an obvious battlefield — the venerable Le Mans 24-hour race in France, which Ferrari cars kept winning.

All this is told with terrific gusto by director James Mangold, from a screenplay by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. The film doesn’t deviate much from the tyre tracks of all those sports movies about overcoming challenges and racing to the line (see Chariots Of Fire and countless others), but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s done well.

And it is. Mangold has made a winner.

The film doesn¿t deviate much from the tyre tracks of all those sports movies about overcoming challenges and racing to the line (see Chariots Of Fire and countless others), but there¿s nothing wrong with that if it¿s done well

The film doesn’t deviate much from the tyre tracks of all those sports movies about overcoming challenges and racing to the line (see Chariots Of Fire and countless others), but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s done well

WARNING: This film may be bad for your elf!

Last Christmas (12A)

Verdict: Wholly indigestible 

Rating:

Christmas films have no right to come out halfway through November, but at least it means that this one, the first turkey of the season, written by and starring Emma Thompson, might be forgotten by the time the festive period actually begins.

Set in London and trying ever so hard to be as slick and whimsical as Love Actually (2003), it’s a truly indigestible feast of bad acting, risible dialogue, daft plotting, lazy slapstick, and a supernatural final-act twist that, if nothing else, makes some sense of all the nonsense that has gone before.

Unhelpfully, the audience might well have scarpered by then. Last Christmas also features the music of George Michael, from which, indeed, it derives its title.

Set in London and trying ever so hard to be as slick and whimsical as Love Actually (2003), Last Christmas is a truly indigestible feast of bad acting, risible dialogue, daft plotting, lazy slapstick, and a supernatural final-act twist that, if nothing else, makes some sense of all the nonsense that has gone before. (Pictured, Emilia Clarke)

Set in London and trying ever so hard to be as slick and whimsical as Love Actually (2003), Last Christmas is a truly indigestible feast of bad acting, risible dialogue, daft plotting, lazy slapstick, and a supernatural final-act twist that, if nothing else, makes some sense of all the nonsense that has gone before. (Pictured, Emilia Clarke)

Emilia Clarke plays Kate, promiscuous, messed-up daughter of Croatian immigrant parents. She’s a huge George Michael fan, who eventually falls — Wham! — for a handsome stranger called Tom (Henry Golding, more or less reprising his role in last year’s wildly overrated Crazy Rich Asians, as the wholesome-but-wooden love interest). 

When she’s not mooning after Tom, Kate spends her time working in a shop selling Christmas kitsch and trying to avoid her overbearing mother (Thompson, working hard on the Balkan gutturals).

One of the reasons her mum is concerned about her is that Kate has had a heart transplant, cue lots of wry metaphorical poignancy, as she goes from being heartless, to having her heart broken, to finally becoming big-hearted. You couldn’t make it up, except, alas, that Thompson did.

It’s no great surprise throughout all this to find Clarke over-acting terribly; she gave a similarly tiresome performance in 2016’s painful Me Before You. She might have been fine on Game Of Thrones, but the big screen magnifies her many annoying mannerisms.

The script, every line a quip, doesn’t help. More unexpectedly, the director is Paul Feig, whose credits include Bridesmaids (2011). Both he and Thompson might want to wipe this off their CV.

In short, don’t let anyone wake you up before they go-go. You’ll wish you’d stayed in bed.

A longer version of this review ran in Tuesday’s paper.

Lupita’s sweet Caroline teaches zombies a lesson

Little Monsters (15)

Verdict: A zom-com too far

Rating:

This is the year of the zombie comedy — The Dead Don’t Die, Zombieland: Double Tap, and now an Australian effort, Little Monsters. Unfortunately, none of them are especially good, though Little Monsters at least has the classy Lupita Nyong’o saving the day, in more ways than one.

She plays Miss Caroline, a sweet kindergarten teacher whose fierce devotion to her cute little charges cannot be shaken; even by a savage multitude of the undead. 

Regrettably, Abe Forsythe’s movie takes a bewildering amount of time to unveil its one considerable asset — Nyong’o — instead spending ages establishing the tiresomely feckless character of Dave (Alexander England).

In Little Monsters, Lupita Nyong¿o plays Miss Caroline, a sweet kindergarten teacher whose fierce devotion to her cute little charges cannot be shaken; even by a savage multitude of the undead

In Little Monsters, Lupita Nyong’o plays Miss Caroline, a sweet kindergarten teacher whose fierce devotion to her cute little charges cannot be shaken; even by a savage multitude of the undead

He’s an emotionally-stunted fool who falls for Miss Caroline when taking his nephew (Diesel La Torraca) to school, and ends up accompanying her and her class on a trip to a petting farm, where they encounter the zombies.

His charmlessness is hard to beat, but a visiting American celebrity played by Josh Gad achieves it, as the film descends into chaos, resorting to a barrage of expletives to generate laughs. 

There are, in truth, some funny moments. But sitting through the whole movie is too high a price to pay.

It’s like The West Wing… but with waterboarding

The Report (15)

Verdict: Powerful but oppressive 

Rating:

Writer-director Scott Z. Burns has made a film which takes itself very seriously indeed, and that’s fair enough — it deals with a deeply serious subject, the use of torture by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But still there is a kind of oppressive earnestness about The Report, which streams on Amazon Prime later this month after a short cinema run. It’s like an illustrated lecture by a stolid history professor, or if you prefer, an extended episode of The West Wing leeched of all the fun.

It tells a true story. When Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) wants to investigate alleged human rights abuses by the CIA during George W. Bush’s presidency, she gives the job to a diligent staff member, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver).

With The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns has made a film which takes itself very seriously indeed, and that¿s fair enough ¿ it deals with a deeply serious subject, the use of torture by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. (Pictured, Annette Bening and Adam Driver)

With The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns has made a film which takes itself very seriously indeed, and that’s fair enough — it deals with a deeply serious subject, the use of torture by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. (Pictured, Annette Bening and Adam Driver)

His eventual report runs to more than 6,700 pages, and the film attempts to bring it to life by showing unpleasant torture scenes, many of them overseen by a CIA-sponsored psychologist played by Douglas Hodge. You’d never think, given how many American sleazebags he plays these days, that Hodge was once a British telly heart-throb — gorgeously wholesome Dr Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch, for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, it’s pretty horrifying stuff, as waterboarding, mock-burials and the ‘use of insects’ all become standard devices in trying to tease information from Islamic captives.

There’s not much light relief, although my wife and I found some, when Jones talks solemnly about one of the detainees being subjected to a terrible indignity, ‘forced to go to the bathroom on himself’.

Whether that’s just Burns being silly, or an actual line, rarely has that fantastically coy U.S. euphemism seemed so out of place. 

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