To say Marriage Story is my favorite thing Noah Baumbach has ever done isn’t saying much. Baumbach’s previous work is rooted in bourgeois, coastal elites trying to reckon with the “burden” of being misunderstood geniuses. Or, they are films in which it’s protagonist’s are so unlikeable and aloof, it’s virtually impossible to care about or connect to them. In his feature debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach weaved a relatable story about the seemingly endless purgatory many college graduates find themselves in upon leaving college. The group of friends in that film are stereotypes of stodgy white men endlessly spouting dry dialogue, comparing the personalities of Aristotle and Plato to dry martini’s and red wine respectively. You can almost picture them in your mind just by hearing them speak. It’s a type of character that is hard to connect to. These men are nauseating, self-aggrandizing and willing to expand upon their perceived intellectual superiority to their successors without prodding. The irony of it all is they are stuck still hitting on girls in college bars a year post-graduation.
Few films since his debut have sparked that kind of connection for me. Even Baumbach’s more celebrated works (Frances Ha, Mistress America) left me out in the cold with their characters being so elitist, it’s hard to feel sympathy for them in any fashion. In his tenth feature film, he’s tapped into something once again that feels real. Perhaps drawing from his own messy divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh has set him in a mode that finds him working at his most relatable.
In Marriage Story, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are a married couple, Charlie and Nicole. Charlie is an avant-garde play director in New York. His wife, Nicole, and actress, who has left behind a fleeting moment of fame in a college comedy resembling an American Pie type film. They have a son, Henry, who, as is the case with many films about divorce, becomes the object of their fighting in the proceedings.
In its highly effective opening, Charlie and Nicole are sharing letters about why they love each other. When the viewer finds out why, we are swept into a typical Baumbach film. Marriage Story‘s first hour is dry, and wants you to feel empathetic for its characters without taking an empathetic approach. In this first hour, there isn’t much to be taken with. Charlie meets with a cold and cynical lawyer (Ray Liotta) and an older one (Alan Alda) taking a more human approach, in response to his wife meeting and hiring her own lawyer (Laura Dern) even after the couple had agreed to not proceed with lawyers.
As you can predict the relationship devolves, and the movie moves along with a series scenes that don’t ultimately work. I never found myself connecting to the struggles of an avant-garde playwright and his actor wife who live in a fairly swanky apartment in Brooklyn. When the battle begins to shift to custody of their son Henry, the film becomes procedural in the vein a movie like Kramer vs. Kramer. Where and who will Henry live with when the dust settles? Nicole and Henry love L.A., Charlie’s life and work are in New York.
Are they a New York family or an L.A. family? This fairly monotonous battle weighs down the first half of the film. Nicole’s family is from Los Angeles. While Charlie’s family, due the lack of actual blood family, is his theater group back in New York which up until recently, included his wife. Baumbach’s script does do a good job establishing what the two cities mean to them. New York means stability to Charlie, Los Angeles spells the threat of the unknown. Conversely, Nicole’s vision of New York is that of purgatory. Her moment of fame quickly was washed away with her following Charlie to New York. For Nicole, Los Angeles represents freedom, and the distinct possibility of revitalizing a dream she once had.
Something changes roughly halfway through the movie. The location and custody battle take a backseat, and Baumbach shifts the film towards why their marriage stopped working. Thanks to incredible work from Driver and Johansson, Marriage Story elevates to something much more heartfelt and winning than almost all of Baumbach’s previous work. In a series of scenes, the film breaks down marriage and the proceedings of divorce. The final hour becomes much more observational and contemplative. You could view the film as deconstruction of divorce spilt into two parts, the initial anger in the first hour and the reconciliation and recognition of the driving factors in the second hour.
Laura Dern and Alan Alda are also quite good as the lawyers the couple hire for themselves. Dern quite possibly stepped right out of the set of HBO’s Big Little Lies as she channels some big time Renata Klein (her character in the show) energy in this performance. The movie certainly boasts one of the more effective and emotionally charged screenplays of the year. From top to bottom Marriage Story is an acting and writing showcase, giving us some the years best in both categories. Driver and Johansson are given equal time to shine as the script balances both sides of the split as evenly as you can. Driver however has some of the films most powerful and emotionally affecting scenes.
Marriage Story certainly hasn’t converted me to the church of Baumbach so to speak. But, it’s unquestionably the most enveloping of his films. Though it is often funny, and finds genuine moments of humor in some of the mundanities of divorce trials, the movie shines most when Baumbach is pouring his heart out on the screen through his actor surrogates. He is keen on peeling back the curtain into some of life’s most deeply personal moments. He does it gracefully and without choosing sides. The films final hour is expertly interweaves Charlie and Nicole’s perspectives through the deeply personal vision of their creator. Marriage Story isn’t necessarily high on my list of the years best. It’s a movie that if nothing else, has something to say about the fragility of romance, and is willing to take us down a path we may all need to see. For some, it may be reminiscent of a painful memory. Nonetheless, Marriage Story is ostensibly an authentic snapshot of our worst fears upon saying “I do”.