Marriage Story December 24, 2019
2 Hrs., 16 Mins.
arriage Story, the new movie from Noah Baumbach, is a first-rate movie about divorce — a crummy thing the film doesn't make glossy. The couple separating in the feature are a pair of New Yorkers named Nicole and Charlie Barber (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver). They have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). They met a decade or so ago, when Nicole was a fledgling movie actress mostly doing teen comedies and
when Charlie was a promising director. When Marriage Story opens, Charlie is now a pretty successful theater director (one of the plays he’s produced, whose leading role was inaugurated by Nicole, is heading to Broadway), and Nicole has become his muse. The way it’s talked about is that Nicole’s star power helped give Charlie notoriety, and in turn the latter gave Nicole a respectability she previously hadn’t had. Their co-workers mention early in the movie that, in their mind, when they think of Charlie, they also think of Nicole, and vice versa.
Something has shifted. Nicole has decided to do a pilot for a TV show in Los Angeles, where she grew up and where her family lives. She temporarily moves in with her mom, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), in West Hollywood, Henry in tow. Charlie stays in New York to direct. The endeavor marks the beginning of a split. Nicole and Charlie are already having marital problems — Marriage Story commences with them at a joint therapy session, where they’ve been tasked to read aloud short essays they’ve written that invoke what they love about the other person. While in Los Angeles, away from Charlie and finally embarking on an acting gig that doesn’t involve her husband, Nicole further realizes that for most of her adult life, things have functioned on Charlie’s terms. It’s confirmed for her that she’d like a divorce. She doesn’t want it to be contentious; she’d like to stay friends.
Marriage Story is structured around the arc of a separation. Dramatized (and made comedic) is the serving of the divorce papers (Nicole’s sister, played by Merritt Wever, is to do the deed, but gets so nervous she hilariously butchers the responsibility), the hiring of the lawyers, the courtroom stuff, home studies — the usual. The film isn’t so much keen on making insights; it's more compelling because of how it portrays a particular divorce. This is a case, as presented by Baumbach, where one person (being Charlie) has gotten so used to dominating the course of the relationship that it’s suggested it’s been years — or perhaps since the beginning of the marriage — since he’s put thought into what Nicole wants out of her life. He’s taken aback when the latter makes a point to note that she never considered herself a New Yorker. That's just something she became for her husband.
The frustrations, which are voiced in short bursts throughout the feature, crystalize beginning with a cathartic blow-up in Charlie’s new apartment (he’s gotten it so he has somewhere to stay when he flies to California). There, the couple has a verbal boxing session. The worst thing Nicole says is “you’re such a dick” as compared to Charlie exclaiming that he wakes up every day wishing she was dead. The latter statement suggests that Charlie, in a way, wishes his soon-to-be ex-wife gone, and through ugly means, because he can’t take having someone bring up a solipsism he's never much considered. Charlie still folds into the ground after his outburst, expecting his wife to comfort him.
This scene has recently been making the rounds on Twitter sans context and has been widely mocked. You can see why when watching it divorced (pun intended) from the movie. But in the confines of the feature it's pretty memorably volcanic — a much-needed purging of all the bottled-up angst preceding it. That there's a nicely wrought comic gaucheness underlining it is a testament to what's good about Baumbach's writing: he's well aware that no spat doubling as an upsurge would ever have dramaturgical cleanliness to it. I'm glad it's a little embarrassing to watch.
Marriage Story isn’t so much a slanted-one-way movie (neither character is exempt from bouts of insufferability) as it is a film about how, in a divorce, typically the worst characteristics of people come to the fore. In Charlie and Nicole’s individual worst moments, we aren’t so much seeing bad people as ones who’re being put through the wringer and wriggling their way out messily, covered in grime. What we see here is a series of reactions to emotionally unfamiliar and by design jarring scenarios.
Baumbach and his actors efficient capture the malaise. Johansson does career-best work here — she’s just right as a long-suffering spouse working to come into her own after years of putting it off for her marriage. Johansson has a couple of punishing and protracted monologues that remind us that she's an actress who hasn’t often stretched out like this in the movies. In her best films, Lost in Translation (2003) and Under the Skin (2014), what has riveted is how loudly she can make her internalized pain speak for itself. In Marriage Story, everything gets hung out to dry. Driver, who’s been having a great last couple of years, adds a chafed and tragicomic performance to the repertoire. The part in the movie where a home evaluator observes Charlie and Henry in the former’s apartment is a masterwork in awkward, tilted comic acting. The supporting players squeeze the tension out of the drawn-out lucid nightmare. Dern, as Nicole’s WASPy lawyer who orders kale salad too cheerily and who will launch into a spirited monologue about divorce-proceeding misogyny on the spot, is a tour de force; so are Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as Charlie’s short-notice defenders and Wever and Hagerty as Nicole’s blundering relatives.
This is Baumbach, among his generation’s most effective dialogue-oriented filmmakers, doing his Scenes from a Marriage (1973). We’d also like to think it’s autobiographical, considering the similarities between himself and Charlie and between Nicole and Baumbach’s ex-spouse, Jennifer Jason Leigh. But to overdo it on the speculation front is to distract from the well-realized dramatization (and humorizing) of a well-off couple trying to make it through the roughest patch of a union. The ending, which circles back to the beginning of the film through a small and sort of silly gesture, allows us to look forward. If it's contrived, I didn't care. A