In full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.
Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.
It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.
Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.
Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.
Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.
Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.
Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.
However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.
The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.
It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.
Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.
It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.
Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.
Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.
Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.
I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.
This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.
There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.
It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.
In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.
Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.
In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.
To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.
Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:
“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”
The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.
In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.
For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.