September 10, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Marriage Story” & “Bad Education”


MARRIAGE STORY (Netflix – November 6 in theatres/December 6 streaming):  A film doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be great.  There may be no subjects more intensively depicted in movies and on television than marital break-ups and the miseries of divorce, yet Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is so fully realized and brilliantly performed that it finds new drama and insight in familiar territory.  This isn’t Baumbach’s first turn at depicting the damage caused by divorce.  His 2005 The Squid and the Whale is a powerful evocation of the effects of divorce on children.  In the years since, however, Baumbach has himself had a publicly bitter divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and when artsy New York theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) tell each other that while their marriage may be over, they can accomplish their divorce with civility and limited strife, there may be a temptation to snicker.  Indeed, soon enough attorneys have been hired with the most reasonable justifications for going for the other spouse’s throat (Laura Dern for Nicole, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta at various points for Charlie), and the main battleground is their son Henry (Azhy Robertson).  This time, though, Baumbach’s focus is squarely on the spouses themselves, and the infinitely complicated relationship between them, which can be heartbreaking with residual tenderness in one instant and scarring with brutal, long-buried resentments in the next.  Baumbach’s unsparing work here recalls Shoot The Moon, Husbands and Wives and even Scenes From A Marriage (and in its custody battle Kramer vs Kramer, although that was a more heavily plotted and one-sided vehicle).  Even though Charlie may be Baumbach’s stand-in, both parties have standing for their grudges and issues of their own to answer for:  Charlie is an adulterer and entitled artist, while Nicole has been passive-aggressive and less than honest about her frustrations.  One may easily find one’s sympathies switching from one to another within a single scene.  It’s important to note that Baumbach doesn’t make Marriage Story a 136-minute exercise in misery:  there are some hilarious moments here, from Nicole’s farcial attempt to deliver divorce papers to a rant by Dern about the different expectations for men and women that’s one for the ages.  All that Baumbach accomplishes here is possible only because of his actors, and Driver and Johansson reach new peaks of vulnerability and fury that will certainly feature in awards season, with equally accomplished work by the supporting cast.  Baumbach’s use of music is also inspired, from Randy Newman’s gentle score to a pair of performed songs from Stephen Sondheim’s classic marital musical CompanyMarriage Story is a small-scale but overwhelming achievement, one of the best of the year.

BAD EDUCATION (no US distributor):  Cory Finley’s second film as a director is less stylized than his debut Thoroughbreds, but it has a similar eye for the sociopaths among us.  Based on a true story from around 15 years ago, it details the events at a Roslyn, Long Island school district where the district administrator Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and its business manager Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) were among those who stole millions of dollars from the district’s budget, even while enjoying the adulation of local parents as test scores and college admissions climbed, until the crimes were exposed by the local high school’s own student newspaper (personified here via a young journalist played by the appealing Geraldine Viswanathan).  Bad Education isn’t a satire, exactly, although the lies and conniving fictions can be quite funny.  (Apart from being a criminal, Tassone was also lying about his private life, where he was a closeted gay man cheating on his longtime domestic partner.)  The screenplay by Mike Makowsky, who was actually a student in the Roslyn school district when these events occurred, is smart and well-paced, and Finley’s camera spares no one, exposing not only the thieves, but the willingness of the district’s parents and elected school board (headed by a local businessman played by Ray Romano) to overlook the inconvenient.  Janney has long specialized in characters of queasy morality, notably in her Oscar-winning I, Tonya performance, but the revelation here is Jackman, who’s never been as willing to appear weak and unglamorous.  As he moves past the Wolverine era of his career, Bad Education suggests that he has a long future ahead as a character actor.  Bad Education tells a local story with big lessons, and it delivers an absorbing, disturbing syllabus.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."