For Variety’s Writers on Writers, Stephen Rohde pens a tribute to “Clemency” (written by Noah Baumbach).
I was 12, and living in a basement apartment in San Diego. Our building was directly across the street from the Old Globe theater. Sometimes we’d see actors dutifully washing their clothes and rehearsing lines in the laundry room next door to us. I didn’t quite understand the lines they repeated, sometimes under their breath, words about love and loss and longing and hope. My life was all about racing plastic slot cars and raising hamsters. One night I stumbled onto a PBS special about a play, “Company” written by Stephen Sondheim. I fell in love with a song about a world way beyond our apartment. It was witty, heartbreaking and wise. I felt connected to those passionate actors pacing the laundry room.
The song was “Being Alive.”
The song stayed with me through the years. Like an old friend or a cherished relative, I could revisit “Being Alive” over time and it would offer different things. At first it was just a gorgeous melody, then something that felt like my own diary. Now the song comes to visit again, as an emotional highlight in Noah Baumbach’s deeply resonant new film, “Marriage Story.” Adam Driver, as Charlie, the wannabe brilliant New York theater director, outright sings the song as a kind of world-weary karaoke at a Broadway club one night. The use is breathtaking, complete with an ending without applause. Baumbach lets the take run long, as Charlie realizes he has fully stepped into the song’s narrative. He has gone from a one-time Genius Grant recipient and owner of a well-known marriage to his actor-collaborator, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), to a cousin of Bobby, the failed stud at the center of “Company.”
It’s one of those stunning moments that makes a movie soar. “Marriage Story” is about life as we know it. The scenes often crackle with authenticity, from Johansson’s high-wire one-take monologue about the careerism of her narcissistic soon-to-be-ex husband, to Driver’s wrenching attempts to co-parent a confused son, to Alan Alda as the nearly washed-up wannabe father-figure divorce attorney who represents Charlie for a while. Alda nearly pockets the movie in a handful of scenes, particularly the one where Driver’s Charlie finally interrupts his lawyer’s rambling joke, pleading with him, “Am I paying for this joke?” (The joke is never finished. Bravo.)
“Marriage Story,” in the end, makes its point with gentle insistence. As the emotional walls close in on Charlie, and his decisions must be made about the fate of their child, he comes face to face with the real issue. How do you spend the currency of humanity? Watching this film, I could still feel that plastic slot car in my hand, not knowing then but feeling the mystery and excitement and pain of all that might come later. This is what it’s like. Having kids. Getting married. Or unmarried. Giving everything another chance. Being Alive.
Crowe is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter-director of “Almost Famous.” He produced this year’s Sundance documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”