Which is to say it could have been Rules of the Game, had director-writer Noah Baumbach been so inclined.
Warren Beatty, Robert Towne and Hal Ashby‘s Shampoo was meant to be kind of a modern-day Rules of the Game — a film about distraction and frivolity in a social realm on the brink of jaded, narcissistic collapse.
That collapse, in Beatty’s mind, stemmed from the deflating of the spiritual, reach-for-the-skies ’60s and the failure of the ’72 McGovern campaign, which came to a symbolic halt when the silent majority put Nixon into the White House in order to enforce “lawnorder.”
“And so,” a friend has written, “I sometimes wonder when I watch some movies out right now…which of them is unintentionally Shampoo? Movies, I mean, whose makers had no idea they were making a movie about a culture locked in delusion, and on the brink of collapse.”
Thought #1 is that Marriage Story could have been Shampoo or Rules of the Game, if Noah Baumbach had wanted to go there. (The fact that he didn’t is fine with me — in and of itself Marriage Story is a very fine, emotionally open-hearted film.) Thought #2 is that Marriage Story would be COMPLETELY BRILLIANT if it wanted to carry the torch of Shampoo and Rules of the Game and thereby portray a delusional culture, etc.
From Anthony Lane’s Marriage Story review: “This is a frighteningly first-world piece of work. Viewers in countries whose litigious instincts are less barbaric may watch it in amazement, as if it were science fiction.
“We laugh at Jay’s astronomical fee, but the real joke is that Charlie pays it — that he can afford to pay it — when it comes to the crunch. How about the vast majority of husbands and wives, especially wives, who cannot abide the misery of their union but lack the funds to either solve or dissolve it? The crunch [would] slay them.”
The capturing of this elite, sealed-off world, Lane suggests, “may be something of which the movie is itself unconscious, so steeped is its creator in the world that he describes.”
Critic-journo Lewis Beale: “Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda [are] all great. But I was basically unmoved by this divorce story. [One reason is] my weariness with films about the angst of the upper middle classes. The married couple in this opus are a theatre and TV actress and an avant-garde theater director who has won a MacArthur genius grant. Not exactly your normal married duo.
“It seems Noah Baumbach can’t avoid making films about people from the Upper West Side or ritzy areas of L.A. After a while these folks, with their money and/or good looks, just get on my nerves. Can we please get an intelligent film about a divorcing working-class pair from, say, Nebraska?”
HE response: Baumbach is drawing from his own life and social atmosphere, from what he knows. It almost certainly wouldn’t work if he tried to be Alexander Payne. Artists have to go where their instincts take them.
I for one would be very interested if Payne were to make a film about a Nebraska couple going through rough times. They couldn’t be white, of course. The wokesters would eviscerate Payne if he failed to make his protagonists African-American and/or LGBTQ. But it would be a good film, I’m sensing.