Tagline: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a gruelling coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Merritt Wever.
We enjoy watching Nadia Sawalha’s YouTube channel, as they frequently review films and television series under their rather unique name, “The Popcorn Junkies.” This film was recommended since it has been marketed as the modern-day equivalent of the 1979 critically-acclaimed film, Kramer versus Kramer. A film about the early stages of marital separation and divorce, especially dealing with child access arrangements, is never going to be particularly uplifting or easy to watch. With a running time well over two hours, like most separations, it takes a long time to reach its conclusion.
Charlie, Adam Driver, is an avant garde film director, who prefers receiving critical acclaim rather than financial rewards. His wife, Nicole, Scarlett Johansson, is a former teen movie actress who has sacrificed success in Hollywood to star in Charlie’s theatre productions. The marriage has led to many sacrifices, mainly on Nicole’s part, Charlie has slept with someone else and so it is almost inevitable that they separate. As much as they still love each other, and the film begins with the positives of their relationship spoken out loud by the main protagonists, the relationship has run its course, and both need to escape to live the life that they truly want. In trying to ensure the survival of their life as a couple, they have forgotten who they are as individuals.
Nicole is offered a lead role in a television pilot series in California. She decides to move, takes their eight-year-old son with her and agrees with Charlie that they will eventually divorce and decide upon the real nuts and bolts of the separation once they know if the pilot show is made into a series. They are kind of in that post-separation limbo land: both still grieving over the loss of their marriage. They agree to split amicably and divorce without the involvement of lawyers.
Charlie comes out to visit his son and is shocked when Nicole goes against their agreement and serves him divorce papers. Nicole hires family lawyer Nora, who urges her to pressure Charlie into finding a lawyer himself. Charlie first meets with Jay Marotta, played by Ray Liotta, a lawyer who believes in fighting dirty and charges $900 an hour. Charlie later hires Bert Spitz, a mere $400 an hour, who is a retired family lawyer and prefers a more civil and conciliatory approach. The involvement of the lawyers completely changes the dynamic between the couple, and we are shown an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the two.
At times, the pace is quite slow and hypnotic. There is little frivolity in this movie. It is profoundly meaningful and the lead actors are multi-dimensional and credible. This film is about human connections and so much time needs to be devoted to showing us the intricacies of each family relationship. This is a very intelligent film that asks far more questions than it can provide answers.
Some of the most significant moments in this film that truly question our beliefs are when:
Ray Liota steals the show in illustrating how low lawyers are prepared to go to win a case, exaggerating every tiny human foible and misinterpreting the truth.
Charlie becomes so stressed about the cost of hiring a lawyer, that at one point he asks Bert begrudgingly if he is the one paying for the privilege of his lawyer telling a joke.
Laura Derne delivers an exceptional monologue on why women are so wrongly perceived in the family courts and why they have to appear to be whiter than the Virgin Mary. Sadly her words echo an inherent truth about the judicial system.
There is one disturbing scene in which the lawyer, Nora Fanshaw, played by Laura Dern is discussing with her client, Nicole, the final settlement and this is so characteristic of how lawyers perceive child access arrangements and ignore the wishes of the child. Nora tells Nicole she should agree to having 55% contact for herself against the father Charlie’s 45%, even though Nicole wants it to be a fair 50/50. “I don’t want him bragging to his friends that he got 50/50.” Nora explains. This just shows how the only winners in family law are the lawyers and it is more about their professional reputation than what is best for the child.
But the truth is there is no fun in the family courts. Lawyers are bound to make money. What is best for the child frequently gets forgotten about. The organisations that make these decisions are woefully inadequate and base their final assessment on short visits rather than getting to know a family well. The film underlines the fact that in the family courts and in marital separation, there can be no winner. Both parties lose, but perhaps the greatest losers are the children, caught in the middle at such a formative age, trying to navigate and understand the complexities of adult relationships, and being forced to divide their loyalties and their time. What is the answer? The film offers no perfect solution other than to encourage us to be kind. This is the most substantial message of the film: just be kind.