“Marriage Story,” a critical standout at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, begins with some of the loveliest, most emotionally resonant filmmaking of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s career.
The title doesn’t lie: We listen as Charlie (Adam Driver), a theater director, sings the praises of his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and gently ribs her for some of her more endearing flaws; she does the same for him. These voice-over testimonials play out over two fleeting, gorgeous montages of their everyday life and work together in New York, a city whose bustling streets and tight interiors will soon recede as the movie looks west toward Los Angeles and the marriage abruptly heads south.
If you saw “Marriage Story” here on the Lido, the island where the Venice Film Festival is held, you might have felt a charge of emotion run through the audience, or heard a collective intake of breath, at that key moment and others. The movie — which also played to raves at Telluride and will likely generate more in upcoming dates at the Toronto and New York film festivals — is a lacerating blow-by-blow portrait of Charlie and Nicole’s separation and divorce, a sequence of events loosely based on the end of Baumbach’s marriage to the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Cheerful as that sounds, it’s also an audience picture through and through. There are scenes that earn spontaneous applause, many of them involving Laura Dern’s scream of a performance as Nicole’s ruthless divorce attorney. And there are others that make you all but sigh with pleasure, including two musical numbers that are all the more delightful for being so unexpected, and which feel like wondrous throwbacks to a bygone era of Hollywood entertainment.
More than most movies, “Marriage Story” draws its power from your inability, as a spectator, to look away: For two hours and 15 minutes, you are trapped in this marriage with Charlie and Nicole, experiencing its death throes alongside them, and you can’t help but cherish every last precious moment of their togetherness even when those moments become increasingly unbearable.
Looking away, of course, will be possible for the viewer who watches “Marriage Story,” with a remote control in hand, on Netflix, where it will be available for streaming to subscribers starting Dec. 6. Before that, the movie will play for a month in theaters (beginning Nov. 6), in line with Netflix’s recent strategy of ensuring some exclusive theatrical play for its most anticipated year-end feature titles. Similar plans are being made for the Netflix movies “The Laundromat,” Steven Soderbergh’s seething-with-a-smile comedy about the Panama Papers scandal, and David Michod’s majestic historical epic “The King,” both of which premiered alongside “Marriage Story” in Venice.
A monthlong exclusive theatrical window is also planned for Martin Scorsese’s gangster drama “The Irishman,” Netflix’s biggest and most anticipated feature title of 2019, which will open the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27. It’s a compromise solution after months of negotiations between the streaming giant and Scorsese, a longtime champion of theatrical cinema who had been pushing for a wide release. (Though the longstanding disagreement between Netflix and major exhibition chains over the length of theatrical windows will prevent a true “wide” release.)
“Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” are thus among the latest tests of the Netflix experiment, which will force them to bear the burden of conflicting corporate priorities. Netflix wants to give its worldwide subscriber base early, preferably immediate access to major year-end movies, but it also wants to reap much-coveted plaudits, chiefly Academy Awards, from an industry that still largely regards the company’s business model with fear and contempt.
Can you disrupt an industry and earn its admiration at the same time? Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” — which began its festival run at Venice last year (where it won the Golden Lion), enjoyed a pre-streaming theatrical run and appeared to come within a whisper of the best picture Oscar — answered the question with a decisive “maybe.” It remains a striking anomaly and a reminder of the inherent contradictions in Netflix’s strategy: It’s a movie that might never have existed in its final form without a streaming giant, but also it’s also a movie whose ruminative pacing and immaculate visuals clearly demand to be seen on the big screen.
It would be fascinating to see Netflix’s never-to-be-disclosed records on how many subscribers actually watched “Roma” to completion and how many gave up partway through. (My own informal sampling suggests there are many more of the latter.) A general audience that struggles to watch a poetic black-and-white art film from start to finish is a disheartening commentary on our movie culture. But it also suggests that the convenience of streaming entertainment options is making it increasingly hard for the audience to surrender to a work of art.
The completion rates on “Marriage Story” will almost certainly be higher: It’s in English and features movie stars, and despite its two-hour-plus running time, it moves swiftly and with a rich vein of physical and verbal comedy that offsets the slow-and-steady number it does on your emotions. And while the movie’s images have a fluidity and capaciousness that sometimes feel new to Baumbach’s work, they will nonetheless slip effortlessly onto your television (or computer) screen with little loss of impact.
The same could be said of “The Laundromat,” Soderbergh’s larky and confrontational spin cycle of a movie about the wages of capitalism, a subject that has informed the filmmaker’s work from “The Girlfriend Experience” to “Magic Mike.” Although less aggressive or frenetic in its swagger than “The Big Short,” the new picture similarly functions as an energetic comic explainer on financial malfeasance, with a subtle undercurrent of rage that pulses unexpectedly throughout.
Antonio Banderas and a thickly German-accented Gary Oldman play the real-life figures Ramon Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack, heads of a law firm not known or employed for its scruples. Together they glibly navigate us through a complex and duplicitous world of offshore accounts, shell companies and daisy-chain insurance scams, as laid out by the author Jake Bernstein in his book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.” Meryl Streep provides a crucial emotional counterweight as a woman who loses her husband in a tragic accident and, upon trying to collect her insurance payout, quickly finds herself a hapless victim of a new global economy where every so-called company turns out to be an empty shell.
“The Laundromat” cleverly adopts its own shell-like structure, tucking random surprises and subplots into secret compartments and treating its own playfully disjointed narrative as a sleight-of-hand exercise. I do wish Banderas and Oldman’s shtick were as funny as the movie seems to think it is, though if belly laughs are not forthcoming, the abrupt fourth-wall ruptures and shifts in scenery do add layer upon layer of giddy and ultimately disquieting comic artifice. I’ve seen “The Laundromat” twice and can attest that it benefits from a second viewing, which means it’s far from the worst thing to watch with a remote control in hand.
“The King,” by contrast, merits the sustained grandeur of a theatrical presentation. With its pummeling scenes of mud-and-blood combat, its majestic, nearly monochrome widescreen images and its beautifully broody Nicholas Britell score, this plainspoken but unfailingly intelligent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad demands and ultimately earns your surrender. The incisiveness of Michod’s direction, which some viewers may recall from his contemporary-set art-house thrillers “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover,” works well for a costume epic that deftly slices through the presumptions of the English monarchy.
War — what is it good for? Opening on a corpse-strewn field of battle in the early 15th century, Michod’s movie continually poses that question as it charts the reluctant rise of Henry V (a superb Timothee Chalamet), a stripling who would be king. Hoping to achieve the peace that his malevolent father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), never could, the young Henry submits to a long and difficult test of his physical and psychological mettle, during which he will match wits with the arrogant young dauphin of France (a hilarious Robert Pattinson, a French taunter worthy of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) and rely on his advisers, especially his irascible longtime friend Sir John Falstaff (a soulful Joel Edgerton).
“Game of Thrones” has long since laid waste to the idea that scheming royals and clashing swords are strictly the domain of the cinema. But “The King” doesn’t derive its splendor from nonstop narrative drive or megabudget production values; it comes from its sense of concentration and its uniquely cinematic rhythms. It’s a movie that draws you in slowly, with a gravity that makes itself felt in the deliberation of its camera movements and the magnetic gaze of its star.
Certainly if there were any remaining doubt that Chalamet is an actor, a heartthrob and a style icon for the ages, it was decisively refuted by the movie’s Venice premiere, which began with — and perhaps never fully recovered from — the sight of Chalamet ruling the red carpet with his signature crown of curls and a pale gray silk-and-satin suit. Asked how he felt being at the festival for the first time, Chalamet answered with a reference to last year’s most iconic Lido arrival: “I feel like Lady Gaga on the boat.”
It’s not the kind of thing you see every day, on Netflix or otherwise.
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