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All In The Family: A Movie List For Eve Tushnet

Eve Tushnet asks an interesting question [1]:

I can think of several relatively recent really good movies which explore the suffering and shattering of identity caused by divorce (The Squid and the Whale) or adultery (Eyes Wide ShutThe Secret Lives of Dentists). But even in these movies, if I’m remembering them correctly, the couple or at best the nuclear family exists in a world of its own. That’s not a criticism–the claustrophobic or fever-dream nature of all three of those movies is part of their impact. But the role of friends and the broader society in creating and sustaining a marriage isn’t really portrayed. I’d be interested if any of you all can recommend recent, not-awful movies in which that role is explored. It doesn’t have to be an entirely positive view of society’s involvement in marriage–I think A Separation [2] would count–just a view in which it’s not taken for granted that families or individuals are isolated in their time of crisis.

This is something I mentioned in my discussion [3] of Sarah Polley’s film, “Take This Waltz.” It’s notable in that film that the Michelle Williams character – who leaves her husband – has no “people” of her own, while her husband, the Seth Rogan character, is surrounded by family and friends. Indeed, so far as we can tell, the Williams charter’s only friend is the Rogan character’s sister. In my view, this choice was dramatically necessary, because if the Williams character had told anyone that she was leaving her husband for a rickshaw driver, they would have tied her to a chair to stop her. But it did make for a suggestive contrast, the fact that the one who has no “people” flees the only “people” she has – her husband.

Anyway, it’s a good question, and I wonder whether movies aren’t the ideal medium for exploring this territory. Most movies are single-protagonist quest narratives of one sort or another. Not all, but most. And narratives like that don’t lend themselves to exploring the network of society’s fibers. A movie is more likely to pit a protagonist against society. There’s also the question of time scale. Most movies play out over a relatively short span of time. (Though, obviously, there are exceptions [4].) Exploring how a network of friends and family support – or pull apart – a marriage sounds like it would require a longer span to do right.

The first recent work of art that came to my mind that directly addresses Tushnet’s question is Donald Margulies’s excellent play, Dinner With Friends [5]. It was made into a movie for television [6], but I haven’t seen it, and I hear it isn’t very good. But the play is a marvelous and complex exploration of the interaction between friendship and marriage.

A recent movie that comes to mind is Mike Leigh’s “Another Year [7],” though I don’t know that that movie is about how the penumbra of friends and family affect this marriage so much as how this marriage manages largely to avoid being affected by the emotional storms that rage in that penumbra. That’s its weakness as a film – it comes off as smug, because a happy family surrounded by unhappy people inevitably comes off as smug. But it definitely is a “family and community” film.

In a very different way, The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man [8]” is also about a marriage embedded in a community. I paired it [9] with “Tree of Life [10]” because of the Job connection (got to get back to that pairing thing, by the way), but I could also have paired it with “The Godfather, Part II [11]” for the family-community thing. The movie is a satire, but among the things its satirizing is precisely what Tushnet is interested in exploring.

The Last Station [12]” is supposedly about Tolstoy, man and phenomenon, but his ideas are treated so superficially by the movie that what it winds up being is a portrait of a marriage more than anything else. And the tensions that tear it apart have everything to do with the conflict between the husband’s extra-familial identity and his role within the family. The Tolstoyan “community” isn’t exactly what Tushnet is talking about, but I still think it squeezes in.


How about “Rachel Getting Married [13]“? A movie that depicts a whole series of successfully healing marriages that nonetheless cannot heal the original nuclear family – indeed, that pull that family ever further apart, and away from the trauma that original broke it. A lot of people didn’t like this film, but I thought it was very powerful – and part of what made it powerful is that “family” is on both sides of the equation. It’s what provides comfort and solace to Rachel’s sister, mother and father. But what they are getting comfort and solace from is the pain that Rachel caused them – and she is also, inescapably, part of the family, even though the proliferation of families contributes to her progressive isolation.

Then there’s that book that begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s not out yet, so I don’t know whether the new movie version [14] is any good. (The casting and director leave me skeptical.) But it certainly fits Tushnet’s bill.

And of course there’s the screenplay I’m currently marketing. Know any producers, Eve?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "All In The Family: A Movie List For Eve Tushnet"

#1 Comment By Eve Tushnet On September 12, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

Oh thank you! I am not sure I’d classify “The Last Station” as a non-awful movie, lol, but I’m already super excited to watch “Rachel Getting Married,” and I’ve added “Another Year” to my to-watch list as well.

#2 Comment By Noah Millman On September 19, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

Yeah, “The Last Station” wasn’t great. I thought it was worth it for the two central performances, but the nominal protagonist – the James McAvoy character – was a drip, and his “story” was pointless.

Would love to hear what you think when you’ve seen the two you mention – and would love to hear your own recommendations some time!

#3 Comment By matt On September 22, 2012 @ 10:08 am

One of the horrors of ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin” is that Swinton’s character has absolutely no one to…talk to about Kevin. Kind of an extreme negative version of what you’re talking about.

#4 Comment By theOtherWill On September 24, 2012 @ 9:36 am

How ’bout “The Anniversary Party”. A couple who is not sure they are commited to each other invite all their friends to an elaborate party to try to convince themselves everything can work. Revelations ensue. A touching scene is when they watch their best friends tenderly carrying their sleeping children — they look on, but know they will never have that.

#5 Comment By cw On September 26, 2012 @ 8:27 pm


Since I got Netflicks I have had the chance to rewatch some great movies. Off the top of my head, three that stood out the Leopard, Armacord, Smiles of a Summer Night. There are so many great movies out there that people have forgotten I thin it would be great if you picked ones that appealed to you and wrote about them. It would be a great service since people are always looking for movies to watch (at least I am).

And I think you should merge shakesblog with the the other blog. People can always skip over posts they are not interested in.

#6 Pingback By Quick movie reviews | Orthogals On March 5, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

[…] to lure him out of pride, but because she is desperately lonely and unhappy. Eve Tushnet said that the movie comes off as smug because it’s about a happy family surrounded by unhappy singles, but the fact is, much of Mary’s unhappiness is due to her own choices. At some point, Gerri […]