Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

Her 2013 ***

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Spike Jonze fashioned a surprisingly empathetic tone-poem to technology with his 2013 romance, with Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a writer who finds himself falling in love with the operating system of his mobile phone. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha reads his email, promotes his work and seems more in tune with Theodore than his dates (Olivia Wilde), his ex (Rooney Mara) or the girl next door (Amy Adams). But digital love is hard to consummate, and Theodore and Samantha face many of the same problems as any long distance relationship; lacking physicality in each other’s world, they struggle to maintain their connection. Jonze uses real locations to suggest the near future, and the technology looks highly viable; while much of the film is just Theodore talking to himself, Phoenix pulls off a gently comic performance. And Johansson’s voice is perfect; it’s hard to imaging how this would have played if they’d retained Samantha Morton in the role. Her is a delicate, melancholy film, but one that relates to a time when communication is everywhere, but the users of the technology feel more alone than ever.