Abe Beame got passed over for Action Bronson in the role of the casket seller.
The two best films of the year are a divorce movie and a gangster movie. Two genres that have historically been filled with sadism, vitriol, indifferent cool, wonton violence of both the emotional and physical types, often populated by charming sociopaths and apathetic monsters. The Irishman and Marriage Story breathe life into these genres from an unexpected place: The heart. Both films are more human, and conversely, more tragic and devastating, because they’re so singularly focused on relationships. Relationships filled with love, affection and warmth.
Both films have also received very limited releases before they will be dumped onto Netflix for everyone to watch from the comfort of our couches as we negotiate our phones, our kids and all the petty distractions in our homes and our lives, which is a shame because both films deserve deep readings and your full attention. They are, no cap, masterpieces; career summations from two of our finest working American filmmakers.
As previously stated, Marriage Story is a divorce film. It’s a film type that hasn’t been delved into as deeply as the relationship drama or the rom com. There is Kramer Vs. Kramer, First Wives Club or Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, the obvious reference points, but often when films discuss divorce it’s on the margins. Films like E.T., Mrs. Doubtfire, Sideways, Waiting to Exhale, Enough Said, Eat Pray Love and Boyhood discuss divorce tangentially to varying degrees. Often, the tendency is to focus on the protagonist and empathize with him or her, to demonize the former partner and tell a story about self discovery and growth with a toxic relationship in the rearview.
Marriage Story is somewhat radical because it isn’t about a toxic relationship, or even really a bad one, simply one that doesn’t work for two decent, intelligent people who love each other. The film opens, in what is already has become an iconic introduction, with both Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, but you already knew that) recounting precisely what they love about each other. Their testimonies have been written for a mediator who tells them that the purpose of their exercise is to remember why they got married before they begin the ugly process of uncoupling.
There are moments throughout the process where Charlie and Nicole seem to forget this essential truth, but the film never does. It is uncommonly generous to both perspectives. You can argue that the “villains”, to the extent the film has them, are Jay (Ray Liotta) and Nora (Laura Dern) who fill the traditional roles of “Blood sucking divorce lawyers” getting incredibly wealthy off the emotional devastation of others, but even they are presented in context and with pathos. Both are fighting dutifully for their clients, determined to win them a voice, the little bit of Earth for themselves that they needed but that need is what severed their bond.
The real villain of the film is the modern institution of American divorce, and it’s as ugly and terrifying as any monster or slasher you’ll see on a screen this year. It takes their decency in its maw and spits out bile. Alan Alda’s Bert Spitz is a beautiful casualty of the system. An understanding and empathic lawyer who is completely overmatched in the high stakes, petty, territorial waters he’s swimming in.
As such, the film becomes about two star crossed lovers opposing a system constructed to tear them apart, to make them forget why they ever came together. And yet, throughout, the film lingers on the details of their love, the little ways they know each other intimately, understand each other, and care for one another deeply. While the child is often represented in divorce films as a tragic casualty, here he is an afterthought. We are here to examine the dissolution of a great love, and how it lingers in the margins of the brain and heart, even in trauma. Films like Marriage Story historically gravitate to the conflict at their center, this film strives to maintain its allegiances while explaining why separation is necessary. Rather than defanging a heartbreaking drama, it only serves to heighten its tragedy and devastation.
We have no such devastation when considering the demise of Billy Batts (The great Frank Vincent). In many ways he opens what might have been Martin Scorsese’s best film, Goodfellas. It’s Batts that is shifting around in the trunk on the Long Island Expressway. Batts who is a gaping asshole as he throws Tommy’s (Oscar award winner Joe Peci) humble roots as a shoe shine boy in his face, Batts who is brutally stomped, stabbed and shot. Batts whose death is played for laughs as Henry (Ray Liotta, again) Jimmy (Robert De Niro, of course) and Tommy stop for a late night home cooked meal, bury, then re-bury his corpse.
Martin Scorsese has killed hundreds, even thousands of people throughout his illustrious career. He kills many men in the Irishman, many on screen by the hand of his great muse Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a button man for the Philly mob and the bag man for Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, but many more offscreen, as the demise of peripheral characters are explained in brief captions, underlining their tragic disposability.
Theoretically, The Irishman is another in the pantheon of incredible Scorsese gangster flicks. But it isn’t, not really. It’s a love story, about a murderer and his victim. Or I suppose you could call it a triangle, because the third leg is the quiet, brilliant Joe Pesci as Russell Buffalino. Throughout the film’s very intentional three and a half hour run time, both men do a lot for Frank. They elevate him from a thieving truck driver, to a hit man, to a well respected head of a local teamster union. As he sits eating wine soaked lard bread and vodka soaked watermelon with both men, you feel their communal love radiating off the screen.
And even though Pesci does the revelatory work, it’s the relationship between Pacino and De Niro that is the star. I employ the names of the actors rather than their characters because Scorsese does too. He understands our history with these icons and fully capitalizes on it. Both men paced each other in Heat, though they barely were ever on screen together, both men, still in the throes of late youth, were competing to win the film. What is beautiful and heartening in The Irishman is how fully each actor embraces and props up the other throughout their ample time together on screen. In particular, the scene where De Niro asks Pacino to present him at a dinner honoring him is tear jerking. It is equal parts gorgeous and in retrospect, heartbreaking to experience the well established genuine affection the men appear to have for one another.
Much like Marriage Story, in its final act The Irishman is a story about people versus another piece of modern American machinery, in this instance, organized crime. And much like in Marriage Story, the institution wins. Frank, torn between two men he cares for deeply, ruthlessly murders his best friend, using their relationship and absolute trust in one another to lure Hoffa into the place where he will meet his ultimate demise. It is the saddest, most poignant death of the many hundreds Scorsese has ever dedicated to film. He accomplishes this devastation, not with cruelty, not with brutality, but with love.