This is a love letter to Merritt Wever.
You know this actor. She played Zoey, Edie Falco’s perpetually droll co-worker on Nurse Jackie. You may remember, when she won a supporting-actress Emmy for that role in 2013, her straight-into-the-history-books acceptance speech. Here it is, in toto: “Thank you so much! Um, I gotta go. Bye.”
You probably mainlined her stunning performance in the recent Netflix series Unbelievable, where she finds infinite gradations of delicacy and toughness playing a Colorado police detective on the trail of a serial rapist. You may have seen her on New Girl, where she played Elizabeth, Schmidt’s ex; or on The Good Wife, where she played Aubrey, Will’s sister; or on The Walking Dead, where she played Denise, whose death sparked an outrage unusual even for that show; or on Godless, where she played the leader of a female-dominated western town, and won her second Emmy for it.
But do me a favour: When you watch Noah Baumbach’s lovely, shattering new film Marriage Story on Netflix (it dropped Dec. 6), have your remote in hand around minute 32. That’s when Wever shows up as Cassie, sister of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and daughter of Sandra (Julie Hagerty).
By this point, you will know that Nicole, an actor, and her husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), a writer/director, have separated. Nicole has moved from New York to Los Angeles, where she grew up. She and Cassie, who’s also an actor, are at Sandra’s for a holiday meal. Charlie’s on his way, and Nicole plans to use the occasion to serve him with divorce papers. Except, legally, she can’t be the one to do it, so she asks Cassie.
It’s a great scene, organic and bittersweet, and everyone is terrific in it. After you’ve watched it once, rewind, and this time, keep your eyes on Wever. Watch the awkward agony in her posture when Nicole hands her the fateful manila envelope (she loves Charlie; she doesn’t want to hurt him). When Sandra disses Nicole, watch for the subtle way Cassie shakes her head “no” at her sister (Mom’s crazy, don’t pay any attention). Watch how much sad comedy Wever wrings out of practising the envelope handover. The way she rubs her sweaty hand down her pant leg; her double-take when Sandra switches to dissing her; the way she leaps out of her skin when a slamming car door announces Charlie’s arrival.
Nicole and Sandra scatter, and Cassie is left alone with Charlie. Somehow she’s holding a pie, and she’s in such emotional torment (Charlie is her family; this divorce is hard on her, too) that she can’t even tell him what kind of pie it is. It’s fun to fast-forward and rewind through this bit a few times, because Wever is alternately leaning forward and backward from Driver. It’s like a wave: She keeps moving toward him, then remembering, then moving away. He asks, “Are you okay?” and she barks, “I’m just HOT,” because with all the nerves, her volume control is shot. When he finally spies the manila envelope, she gives it to him with this lurch that’s somehow dainty, and this blurt that’s somehow a whisper. And then she exits, still holding the pie.
I’m adding this much detail because what Wever does here is very, very hard to pull off. It involves a thousand choices, a thousand calculations both invisible and intelligent. She shows us everything that’s sad about this scene while also making it eye-wateringly funny. And thank you, Noah Baumbach, for casting Julie Hagerty as Wever’s mom, because we get to see one comedic genius passing the torch to another. I want a whole film that’s just Sandra and Cassie.
This is Wever’s magic. She’s not an Everywoman; she’s too singular for that. But she plays women you believe exist. She’s able to be waftingly daffy and grounded at the same time. She plays kind without ever being boring. She can look radiantly pretty or slept-badly-last-night plain. Through Nurse Jackie’s 80 episodes, she painstakingly deepened Zoey from comedic foil to friend to the beating moral heart of the series. For as long as Zoey stuck with Jackie, we could, too, and when Zoey finally gave up on her, we all felt the blow.
Wever is so vivid in Marriage Story, it’s hard to believe she’s only in two scenes. (Watch her in her second scene, too, where Cassie sings with Nicole and Sandra. The other two are performing for the crowd. Cassie keeps looking at Nicole. It’s a miniscule gesture that conveys huge generosity.) In Unbelievable, however, Wever, who is 39, is the co-lead, which means we finally have the luxury of watching her over time. (And watching her work with excellent material written by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, directed by Lisa Cholodenko and Michael Dinner.)
As Detective Karen Duvall, Wever is superb, alternately wary and gentle, shattered and strong, chuffed and devastated. The moment in Episode 4 when she and her partner, the more senior detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) begin to suspect that the rapist they’re after may be a cop should be taught in acting schools. The look they give each other! The way they communicate, instantly, that this means danger – for them, as women cops!
I especially love the expression on Wever’s face in the scenes where Karen realizes she’s right. (And this may be where Wever is an Everywoman.) Here she is, going about her life. She’s not perfect, but she’s better at what she does than most people. Yet for a host of reasons – she’s modest, she’s not pushy, she doesn’t love to argue, her body doesn’t look like a Barbie doll, she doesn’t fit the mould of who we’ve been conditioned to expect a hero to be – she’s underestimated and overlooked and taken for granted.
Well, I see you, Ms. Wever, and I’m so happy about it. The same way I’m happy to see Kathryn Hahn shining in Mrs. Fletcher; or Sian Clifford making furious, raucous hay as Claire, the sister on Fleabag; or Fiona Shaw killing it in Killing Eve; or Olivia Colman in anything. There are some truly interesting women in TV and film right now. They feel like sisters. And Wever is getting the spotlight she deserves.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.