Few people know what it’s like to be described as an Arguing Man better than writer/director Noah Baumbach.
As the poet laureate of Gen X New York filmmakers, Baumbach’s work is largely defined by young, upper/middle class white men articulating contempt for the people and systems that surround them. So, when I heard his new film Marriage Story was really about divorce, I braced myself for another fight. How much more ruthless would the blows between his character be after Baumbach himself has now experienced divorce first-hand rather than as collateral damage from his parents (and expressed through The Squid and the Whale)?
The fight is messier, for sure, but not bloodier. In fact, the Arguing Man mostly holds back his Hulk tendencies, keeping the gloves on as long as possible. Until he doesn’t. Then we get the most concentrated version of Baumbach’s Arguing Man ever.
No, not you.
Adam Driver returns for his fourth Baumbach film, and finally takes centre stage as an affable, successful New York (stage) director who is married to his former actor muse, played by Scarlett Johansson. The film is ostensibly a two-hander between the co-leads, but it’s hard not to feel the scales tilt towards the male perspective (though not necessarily with sympathy). The title is not a misnomer - the film looks back lovingly at a marriage that is mostly warm and fulfilling, until it’s not anymore and becomes filtered through the cold perspective a court hearing. But it’s the ability to look back with compassion and gratitude, even after seeing past what parts were an illusion, that represents enough growth and evolution for the filmmaker to be worthy of moving past any “angry man” moniker for which he is associated.
The fact there are two characters labeled as Arguing Man and Arguing Woman (your screen partner, Connie Marie Flores), is proof that these one-dimensional attributes have been relegated to the edges of Baumbach’s stories. You and Flores embody the cautionary tale side of unleashing unfiltered emotions in the service of “being honest” or “not keeping it in”. It’s a fantasy we all have, and that few people have exercised better than Baumbach. He often punishes his characters as much in the service of story as therapy. But, as we all hopefully learn with age, the effect of speaking poison is toxic and the relief temporary. More importantly, for a film, it makes the actual final product more satisfying, layered, and yet still cathartic.
It’s hard not to see the beauty and value in a movie this thoughtful, personal, and entertaining. Though, since it’s just part of your character, I won’t fault you for trying.