DRAMA; 2hr 16min
STARRING: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alder, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty
The space between: Johansson and Driver
Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) is a filmmaker with a keen ear for spoken words and an unerring instinct for the innermost wounds they conceal. His latest bullseye opens with husband-and-wife Charlie and Nicole Barber (Driver and Johansson) extolling each other’s virtues in voice-overs played above a montage of expository footage. From this we learn, amongst other scene-setting details, that Charlie is an innovative New York theatre director and that Nicole is his favourite actress. They’re also the caring parents of an eight-year-old son (Azhy Robertson as Henry) and should by rights be mellowing into their twilight years as two peas in a self-sustaining pod. Instead, their glowing testimonies are for the benefit of a mediator: Nicole is, in fact, heading to LA to shoot a TV-series pilot and pour out her heart to a hotshot divorce lawyer (Dern, shark-sleek as Nora Fanshaw) while Charlie takes his new play to Broadway without her. So what the hell happened?
Nicole’s bottom line is that Charlie has come to take her so much for granted that he fails to perceive her as an individual. She is, however, very much her own, determined person, and while she and Charlie have vowed to keep their break-up on an easy-breezy even keel, their smarting feelings — and the Kafka-esque divorce process — won’t be working that way.
From the get-go, the scales are stacked against Charlie. His lawyer (Alda) is a useless pussycat. Henry is happy in LA with Nicole. Bi-coastal trips cost a bomb, even before the legal costs kick in. Shredded by the back-and-forth bloodletting, Charlie starts to feel “like a criminal.” The Barbers’ day in court is excruciating, too, with the unstoppable Ms Fanshaw and Charlie’s scrappy new attorney, Jay (Liotta, in vintage Goodfellas form), going head-to-head like the street brawlers they basically are.
But it’s the beats between the vile swipes, when Charlie is doggedly going it alone or Nicole is being reflexively wifely, that truly allow Driver and Johansson’s honest, intelligent performances to inhabit the paradoxes of learning to let go. Nicole’s trimming of Charlie’s hair and casual re-tying of his shoelace are the ingrained gestures of the person once closest to him who now knows him only too well. They strike the deepest and most saddening chords of all, without anything needing to be said.