- Ken Ilgunas
Movie Review: "Marriage Story"
Is there a psychological term for when critics band together to fawn over perfectly forgettable and mediocre movies? Delusional groupthink? Misplaced acclaim? Self deception to ward off disappointment? The latest film to benefit from a phenomenon along these lines is Marriage Story, which received a 95 percent positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and which will probably grab a bunch of Oscar nominations. Why all the acclaim? Perhaps it was the combination of a darling indie director (Noah Baumbach), a promising cast (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a heartbreaking trailer, a this-is-going-to-win-the-Oscar movie poster, and a classic-in-waiting title (Marriage Story) that made it impossible for critics to admit that Marriage Story failed to live up to all of our expectations.
I have a special aversion for movies set in NYC/LA (there are enough of them already!) and that are about well-to-do actors and filmmakers (enough of those, too), so you could say I was being rubbed the wrong way right off the bat. It didn’t help that the characters were also whiny, self absorbed, and unlikable. And let’s not confuse dysfunctional characters who ragefully yell at each other with good drama or dialogue. The acting was just weirdly bad on all fronts. It was as if I was watching a cast of actors “acting,” which is something I don’t expect from a reputable cast and director. But are they even that reputable? I liked Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. The Life Aquatic (which he co-wrote) is one of my favorites. But from what I gather from his filmography (and I should admit I haven’t seen everything), he seems seriously over-admired. The same goes with Adam Driver, who overacted throughout Marriage Story, and who I think gets coveted roles mostly for his unusual face and voice (the same way Benedict Cumberbatch gets roles for his interesting face and name). In the past ten years, Driver has managed to get cast in about 25 films plus a popular HBO series, and I’m just not sure why. What are his memorable performances? What are his iconic movie moments? What has he done to have admired directors (Spike Lee, Spielberg, Jarmusch, J.J. Abrams, Scorsese) cast him in roles that young actors would die for? I just wasn’t buying his relationship with Scarlett’s character, and his overacting in the early Monopoly scene was overlooked in the editing room.
[As an aside, I want to say that “who’s cast in this or that movie” is almost always immaterial to me. The only actor who will make me go out of my way to watch a movie, regardless of what the movie is about, is Daniel Day Lewis. (Directors are a different thing: I’d probably set out to see almost anything that P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, James Cameron, the Coen’s, Kelly Reichardt, or Alfonso Cuarón makes.) The high quality of acting in TV series like Game of Thrones, Easy, and High Maintenance (all of which are dominated by unknown actors) suggests to me that there is no shortage of top-notch talent out there, but that these talented actors can’t get a footing because actors like Driver, for reasons I can’t comprehend, become the darling of Hollywood where he soaks up all the good roles.]
I shouldn’t conclude without saying something positive about the film. I thought the movie succeeded in showing just how wrenching and expensive modern-day divorce is, and how it brings out the worst in everyone. That’s an important story to tell, but it doesn’t feel like a universal story (and Marriage Story is marketed as a movie that will have universal relevance), when it’s about characters who can afford to leap from LA to NYC willy nilly, who randomly win MacArthur Grants, and who prance around in public singing songs as if life was a musical.
Lastly, I didn’t despise the movie. I just can’t keep quiet when critics fawn over mediocrity.