Laura Dern’s Oscar Story

Back when we covered Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed political satire Citizen Ruth as a Movie of the Month, it occurred to me that it’s dispiritingly rare to see the great Laura Dern in a genuine leading role. Between Citizen Ruth, Rambling Rose, and Inland Empire, I could only find three feature films in which Dern was top-billed as the lead actor, despite decades of fine work on the big screen. Unfortunately, that means the full power of her consistently compelling screen presence largely goes unnoticed & unrewarded, relegated only to her value as a supporting player. Last year, Dern was at least utilized as a potent supporting actor in two major Oscar contenders: Marriage Story & Little Women – which were, interestingly enough, directed by both partners in a married couple (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, respectfully). Dern’s efforts have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story in particular, her first nomination since she was recognized as a potential Best Supporting Actress for Wild in 2015 (a statue she lost to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood). What I find interesting about this year’s Dern nomination is how it’s been framed in some online criticism circles as a career-merit award or somehow just Industry recognition for Dern’s recent work on popular television programs like Big Little Lies & Twin Peaks: The Return. The nomination is being discussed as if Dern’s performance in Marriage Story isn’t especially awards-worthy, that she’s being recognized for her contributions to cinema at large. That’s bullshit.

Laura Dern is genuinely fantastic in Marriage Story, totally reshaping the texture of the entire film with just a few scenes of onscreen dialogue. In the film, she plays a high-priced divorce lawyer who escalates the stakes & tone of the central couple’s painful separation. As the films’ two leads, Adam Driver & Scarlet Johansson are allowed to really pick apart the emotional textures of that separation at length (for which they’ve both been nominated as Best Leads). It’s Dern’s thankless task to establish the much harsher, colder tone of the legal arena where that separation will reach its fever pitch. It’s a world that relies on calm doublespeak & practiced artifice, which clashes spectacularly against the raw, confessional emotions of the star combatants. Other lawyer characters played by Ray Liotta & Alan Alda in the film help sketch out the extreme boundaries of that legal hell world, but it’s Dern’s job to welcome Driver & Johansson’s leads through the hell’s front gates, opening up their intimate detangling to a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth that stretches the entire length of the country. Marriage Story is just as much about the cruelty & confusion inherent to navigating the legal system in the process of divorce as it is an intimate drama about a romantic meltdown. In that way, Dern’s supporting role as the first & most prominent lawyer featured onscreen greatly affects our perception of the battlefield where the central conflict unfolds.

Dern’s self-confident power lawyer enters the film by apologizing for her “schleppy” appearance, despite being dressed to the nines in designer jeans & drastic heels. We’re immediately aware that her words & her body language are expressing an entirely different sentiment than what she’s actually communicating. When she offers Johansson, a potential client, to take home cookies from her office, it’s a sly advertisement for her services, as Johansson will continue to keep her in mind long after she leaves the office as she snacks on those treats. When Dern quotes a Tom Petty song in casual conversation, it’s only so she can advertise that she negotiated his ex-wife’s divorce from the singer for a large sum. Of course, these textual subtleties are largely a result of Baumbach’s sharply written screenplay, but Dern is visibly having fun with the material onscreen, selling the full impact of the role in a way few other performers could. Her performative version of active “listening” while Johansson is recounting the details of her failing marriage is as tense as watching a snake coil in grass, waiting to strike at a potential meal. One of the film’s most outrageous moments is when Dern removes her blazer in court as if she’s overheated, entirely just to distract from the opposing counsel’s arguments by showing some skin. She warns her client that “This system rewards bad behavior,” and over time proves to exhibit most of that bad behavior herself, proudly. Laura Dern makes a spectacle out of this seemingly minor role, drawing subtle contrast between the meaning of her body language and the meaning of her spoken dialogue that only becomes more exponentially significant the longer you dwell on its details.

It might be easy to reduce Laura Dern’s Oscars attention for Marriage Story to a glib assumption that it’s a lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for this performance in particular. Between her limited screen time and her highlight-reel monologue where she rants about how “God is absent father” while the Virgin Mary is unfairly upheld as a maternal ideal, there’s plenty of fuel to feed that kind of cynicism. I just don’t think it’s fair to downplay the impact Dern’s presence has on the film at large. She is a gussied-up power lawyer who shapes audience perception on both the communal vanity of Los Angeles and the cutthroat mind games of courtroom etiquette: two major factors in how the marital drama in the forefront develops. The only truth to the argument that she would have gotten this same nomination for any role (say, her interpretation of a silently angry Marmee in Little Women) based on her career’s work at large is that Laura Dern would have killed any role Hollywood tossed her way. She always delivers. The true shame about her nomination this year is that wasn’t for a Best Leading Performance, since Hollywood so rarely affords her top-bill opportunities that she never really has a chance to earn that accolade. If we’re relegating Laura Dern’s powerful screen presence to Supporting Player status only, she might as well earn her first Oscar for her movie-stealing role in Marriage Story. Hopefully she’ll win, and more prominent lead roles will follow.

-Brandon Ledet

While We’re Young (2015)



As I explained in my review for Mistress America, Noah Baumbach is remarkably talented at making me feel like shit while also enjoying a good, old fashioned nervous laugh. I ended up appreciating Mistress America a great deal more than I did Baumbach’s earlier release from this year, While We’re Young, but the pair did work together nicely as two sides of the same coin. In Mistress America, we’re swept away by & quickly grow disgusted with a pretentious free spirit who lives a frivolous life in the magical version of NYC that only exists on film. In While We’re Young, on the other hand, we’re similarly disgusted by a go-getter of a young documentarian who embodies every disdainful idea about what it means to be a hipster to an infuriating degree in an all too real NYC we wish didn’t exist in real life. Part of the reason While We’re Young‘s self-absorbed sociopath of a subject doesn’t excite the audience in the same way Mistress America‘s does is that he feels more like a carefully selected collection of quirks than a real person, never really evolving beyond much of a caricature, so your feelings towards him are much less complex. He is exceedingly fun to hate, though. Baumbach at least got that part right.

The sycophant in question is Jamie, a role Adam Driver plays like a bizarro world version of Joey Ramone where everything he does & says, right down to the basic motions of his limbs, are vile affectations worthy of vitriol (just look at the way he holds beer cans if you’re looking for something to angry up your blood). Jamie’s latest victims/”friends” are a middle aged couple played by Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts, who are attracted to the excitement of meeting younger versions of themselves in Jamie & his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) because it allows them to escape a dull life where their contemporaries use peer pressure to convince them to do things like have children instead of younger-oriented fare like experimenting with drugs. In the compare/contrast portion of the movie, Jamie’s victims are portrayed as Gen-X squares who watch digital television & listen to CDs instead of enjoying the finer antiquated formats of vinyl records & VHS tapes. Despite how things may seem on the surface here, however, the true difference between the two couples is that the older set is a normal pair of human beings while the younger ones are a curated set of dishonest affectations.

While We’re Young is most alive when it aims for cringe comedy in the never-ending gauntlet of indignities that accompany a midlife crisis. Once Stiller & Watt’s older couple start dressing younger, wearing stupid hats (including indoors! at the dinner table! yuck!), tripping & puking at an phony shaman’s apartment, and failing miserably to look competent at hip-hop dance classes, the movie not only earns most of its genuine laughs, it also effectively depicts modern life in NYC to be a nightmarish hellscape. That’s not to say that Baumbach goes anywhere near the jugular here. If you’re looking for a full-on scathing takedown of the Brooklynite hipster, you’re much better off watching the Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy. The saddest moments in While We’re Young mostly amount to minor embarrassments & the distinct feeling of losing touch with old friends while chasing new ones. There may be a bitter remark here or there about The Baby Cult of new parents or rampant cellphone addiction or how the millennial generation are a collection of “entitled little brats”, but for the most part the film is well aware that it’s being an old curmudgeon in these moments. That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of venom in the portrayal of Adam Driver’s horrendous hipster abomination Jamie, who is at one point described with the phrase, “It’s like he once saw a sincere person & has been imitating them ever since.” The movie is ostensibly willing to let him off the hook for his transgressions, though. In the end what Jamie is up to doesn’t really matter, because he’s young & frivolous. It’s the emotional journey of the film’s middle aged characters that carry most of the film’s heart, which makes for a serviceable cringe comedy & lightly romantic indie drama depending on the scene in question. It’s nowhere near the forceful impact of the more pointed Mistress America, but While We’re Young is another success for Baumbach nonetheless.

-Brandon Ledet

Mistress America (2015)



Noah Baumbach is extremely adept at making me feel like shit. While from the outside his signature films The Squid & The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, etc. may look like the kind of cutesy indie dramas that often earn the quaint moniker “Sundance darlings”, they actually pack much more of a devastating emotional punch than you’d first expect. Baumbach’s parade of broken, often vile characters truly get under my skin, mostly because they’re so real & so relatable. What’s even worse is they have the nerve to make me laugh at the same time, despite myself. Even if I don’t personally identify with the moral reprobates Baumbach brings to the big screen, I can at least recognize their traits in real life people that stalk this cursed Earth, often people I love or at least find amusing. For instance, the deeply unpleasant film Greenberg hosts a lead performance from Ben Stiller so heartlessly misanthropic & cruelly self-centered that I left the film shaking so thoroughly with anger that I couldn’t help feeling as if part of my discomfort was that I recognized aspects of his destructive behavior in people I know intimately or, shudder to think, myself at my worst. It was so tempting to reduce my reaction to Greenberg to “Fuck that movie!” but at the same time it was near impossible to ignore that it had struck a chord, unpleasant or not. In a lot of ways, Baumbach’s latest film Mistress America is the spiritual opposite of Greenberg, yet both films somehow strike that dark, too-close-to-home chord of discomfort.

Mistress America, which Baumbach co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig (who portrays the titular human anomaly Brooke), strikes a funny, but acidly damning portrait of Millennial pretentiousness. Brooke is anything & nothing simultaneously. She’s a creative spirit with no follow-through to finish any of the many projects she conceives. She drifts in & out of people’s lives without ever emotionally engaging with them in any specific way, leaving behind a trail of destruction that she is far too self-absorbed to even notice. She constantly rags on “rich people”, but obviously coasts on a certain level of privilege she won’t acknowledge. Brooke tries to be everything to everyone, even going as far as adopting different costumes (sometimes on an hourly schedule) depending on the task at hand: pencil skirts for business meetings, workout gear for the health nut part of her day, non-prescription glasses & sweaters for tutoring sessions, etc. While tutoring a math student she’s shown describing the nature of “x” as a variable that “can’t be nailed down”, which is very much on the nose. However, when she later describes herself as “kind & fearless”, she’s completely off the mark. Brooke may think she knows every last thing about how the world works, but the truth is she doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.

At the same time, though, her boundless energy & roaring self-confidence can be intoxicating, especially to a young admirer. Brooke’s soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is mildly critical of, but completely starstruck by Brooke, who is, by all means, an impossible person (the kind that lives in Times Square & spontaneously gets invited onstage at concerts). Alone on a college campus in New York City, Tracy is an emotionally vulnerable freshmen who is looking for a sense of self-purpose & personal identity. Tracy yearns to be a pretentious literary type, but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In Brooke she sees the unbridled moxie she wishes she possessed herself. As she fawns over & begins to imitate Brooke, the film gets similarly excited, picking up speed in a delirious manner & getting drunk on self-awarded power. However, Brooke’s modern day Holly Golightly lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem on the surface & Tracy quickly discovers that her hero is a broken, selfish narcissist not so gracefully transitioning from the twilight of her frivolous 20s into a much less flattering frivolous adulthood.

In a lot of ways Brooke is more of a collection of empty platitudes & thinly veiled attempts to be quotable than a real person. While casually posing for a friend’s Instagram photo she asks, “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?!” When Tracy explains she wants to be a stort story writer, Brooke responds “I read that TV shows are the new novel.” Other self-generated clichés include “You can’t really know what it is to want until you are at least 30,” & “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” She’s also prone to introducing herself to new friends with the account that “I watched my mother die […] Everyone I love dies,” a personal catchphrase that feels all the more disquieting because she sounds like she doesn’t mean one word of it. It’s no wonder that Brooke is so proficient at Twitter fame, schmoozing businessmen, and coaching a spin class. Her vapid phrasings can be downright inspirational at times . . . as long as you don’t pay attention to what she’s actually saying.

It’s possible that not everyone will engage with Brooke in the same adversary way that I did. Like Tracy (who Brooke deems “Baby Tracy”) it’s feasible that some audiences could fall for her surface charms. It seems like no mistake to me, though, that the more Tracy imitates Brooke, the less unique & likable she becomes as a protagonist. In a lot of ways her newfound confidence turns her into an insufferable jerk & a bully. Also amplifying this feeling is the vibrant 80s synth soundtrack, which always feels like it’s building to a significant breakthrough moment that it never actually reaches. In so many ways, this echoes Brooke’s entire, vapid existence. She thinks that she’s the star of the show (and life is certainly nothing if not a staged production in her case), but she’s actually the butt of its cruel joke.

Mistress America pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing that fragile emptiness behind Brooke’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I façade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like Tracy, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad. Brooke is the kind of person you’d love to talk to at a party & someone you could have a general sense of concern about, but not a presence you’d want to connect with on any intimate level. She’s far too fleeting & brutally egotistical for that & Mistress America has an emotional bodycount to prove it. Like with a lot of Baumbach’s work, it’s the kind of film that makes you feel truly awful for laughing, a conflicting sensation I personally enjoy very much.

-Brandon Ledet