dir: Noah Baumbach
I know. I KNOW. You don’t have to tell me how insufferable some of Noah Baumbach’s work is, or his ability to get actors to play the most insufferable versions of themselves imaginable. I sat through Greenberg, which starred someone who looked a lot like Ben Stiller, but couldn’t have been, because surely that actor was murdered, and Ben Stiller has been in stacks of films since then. But I don’t blame Ben Stiller’s doppelganger, you have to aim your praise / blame at Noah Baumbach for that.
For all the archness of much of the dialogue in his flicks, or the preciousness, there are times when it all clicks together. This is, at least for me, one of those times when the parts, pieces and performances cohere so well. It will stagger no one to find out that Marriage Story is really all about the seemingly amicable divorce between two people who don’t hate each other yet. They have a kid between them, so they are doing their best to be there for him and to act like it’s not all his fault (it totally is). And while it’s far more relevant to look at Baumbach trying to gently tell a story as common as any other experience in the States (apart from owning a gun and wanting to get the coronavirus, nothing seems more American than having at least one divorce under your belt), it’s personal for a lot of these people.
I’m also pretty sure he’s filtering the story through a 70s filmic lens, since there’s a lot that brings to mind Kramer versus Kramer and maybe Irreconcilable Differences, and a fair few others. On the other hand, it’s unfair to say he’s just referencing those kinds of films when virtually everyone involved in this production knows about divorce.
Noah Baumbach’s first movie The Squid and the Whale was all about the impact that divorce had on a bunch of pretentious and precocious kids, which itself was based on Baumbach’s life growing up. But more recently of course there’s the fact that he was married to Jennifer Jason Lee for crying out loud, and they got divorced. Scarlett Johansson’s on her third marriage I think, and Adam Driver’s parents got divorced. We could almost call it a universal experience.
Even those of us lucky enough to have avoided the formal and legal experience of divorce have experienced relationships falling apart, which is an actual universal human experience because how else would we truly know we are alive until we just fucking want to die from heartbreak?
That’s when we’ve TRULY lived, eh?
On the surface this is meant to be an amicable divorce. In fact, when the film starts, deceptively, we are hearing Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) testify as to each other’s best qualities.
The rug is firmly pulled out from under our feet when it’s revealed that it’s a trick: these statements are being read in front of a marriage counselor who Nicole does not take kindly to. Clearly, for a multitude of reasons we aren’t privy to as yet, this relationship is not for saving.
Nicole wants to live in LA, because she has family there, but also because she’s an actor, and she has a chance at a new role in an ongoing series. I guess ongoing work is important to people, especially in this age where so many people have lost their jobs. So, so many people. Poor bastards.
Charlie, on the other hand, cannot countenance living anywhere other than New York. He’s a New Yorker, and loathes the superficiality and perceived materialism of California. He’s way happier directing off-Broadway difficult plays watched by tens of people at a time. Because that has cred. He’d rather live somewhat modestly producing his own plays than something more lucrative because…what a luxury to be able to choose.
The sticking point in the relationship is that Nicole really wants to live and work in LA, and Charlie doesn’t want that to happen, but eventually “agrees”, saying that it means the money she makes from the series could be plowed back in to his theatre company.
It’s all about Charlie, you see. Everything should be about him, or for him, and any time he’s not around people should be talking about him.
In that the split is not acrimonious at first does not mean there is no resentment. Nicole has a long list of grievances that she airs when prompted by a divorce lawyer (Laura Dern) that don’t individually sound that bad, but when packaged together sound like their relationship required Nicole’s hopes and aspirations having to always take a back seat to Charlie’s ambitions.
And what does that mean for the kid, and custody? Well, when one person wants the kid and wants to live in LA, and the other wants the kid and wants to live in New York, clearly someone’s going to be disappointed.
When they say to each other that they intend to do things easily and amicably, and not even get the lawyers involved, you feel like yelling “how naïve can you be?” I guess everyone who separates amicably at first hopes that theirs will be the first blame-free break up in human history. It could happen. In theory.
But the lawyers always get involved, because there is so much money to be made from picking over the corpse of their relationship. Laura Dern’s character uses sweetness and light to conceal the stiletto she has ready to screw over the other side in a divorce. She clearly lives for it. Towards the end she wrangles an advantage that wasn’t wanted or even asked for, just so she can feel like she got something over her opponents. Her male equivalent (Ray Liotta, just as ferocious here as in anything else he’s ever killed people in) is ready to fight tooth and bloody nail to stop Nicole from getting everything.
In an interim, Charlie gets to visit a cheaper, gentler version of these shysters played by Alan Alda, who assures Charlie that there is a way to settle things without bloodshed. It comes as no surprise that he is something of a meerkat compared to Laura Dern’s great white shark. It is nice to see Alan Alda again, considering how old and unwell he is, but I’m still glad he’s getting work. There are scenes where the effects of his Parkinson’s are fairly obvious, and that’s sad, but it doesn’t detract from the performance. If anything it adds to the poignancy. He’s also a link to the other strain of 70s – 80s movies that Baumbach wants us to be mindful of, which is many of the more dramatic flicks Woody Allen made that Alda was in. Yeah, look, I didn’t want to say the bastard’s name either, but it’s relevant, and it’s before we knew what a piece of shit he was.
There’s a kid at the centre of all of this, being Henry (Azhy Robertson), but he doesn’t seem to really be torn between his parents. At All. He’s happy to see his dad occasionally, but he seems to be fine with not seeing him all the time, and he really likes his new friends in LA. Because people in relationships or marriages only have kids so that they can keep fighting their old fights through new surrogates, of course Nicole and Charlie have to take their growing resentment out through Henry.
This leads to the absurd image of Charlie insisting that Henry go trick-or-treating a second time, much later, when everyone has turned the lights off on their porches, and the only places open are bodegas and convenience stores. Of course we’re meant to see how poorly Charlie is doing in not letting his pride dictate his behaviour, but it is also kind of funny.
Even before that there’s the most hipster of hipster arguments over what Henry’s costume for Halloween should be. Henry wants to go as a ninja, but Charlie had the costumer from his theatre company make a bespoke costume for him so they could go as monsters from the classic Universal movies (like the bandages-clad Invisible Man, or the Lon Chaney Wolfman, neither of which any eight-year-old could possibly care about), because to him it had more cred than a store bought costume.
So it’s not about what Henry wants, it’s all about what Charlie thinks Henry should want. In acknowledging that Charlie is fairly self-centred and imposes a lot of stuff onto other people is not to ascribe too much of the blame to him. Even though I’ve seen a lot of comments or reviews that seem to blame one parent over the other (which unfortunately and predictably falls along gender lines a lot of the time), I think the film painstakingly tries to be even-handed with the two of them. I don’t think Nicole’s complaints about Charlie are unfair, and I don’t think Charlie is a total prick. That being said he makes a lot of the mistakes that almost all parents do at some point, it’s just that he does them at the worst possible time, and with the worst possible audiences.
A lot of what I’ve written makes it sound like a crushing slog, but the truth is most of the time the flick treads fairly lightly, and a lot of the situations are played for humour rather than pathos or drama. A lot of the humour is parceled out to other characters, like Wallace Shawn as a minor thespian bragging about being blown by a four-time Oscar winner and launching into interminable anecdote after interminable anecdote, or a cast and crew wondering why key grips on set are always so flirty with the talent. Sure, a lot of the dialogue sounds painstakingly curated, but most of the time it’s delivered quite casually. A scene where Charlie accidentally cuts himself while referring to a trick he does where he pretends to cut himself is hilarious and nearly made me faint at the same time. I have done so many things as dumb as that in the presence of a child that I can’t really blame Charlie without setting fire to myself.
But there are plenty of things that he does that seem to be coming more from his wounded pride which he is just oblivious to, or chooses not to see, and that’s a bit less forgivable. As the stakes escalate, and the lawyers turn brutal, it leads to a fight of such enormous viciousness that it puts bloodsports like UFC to shame. It is such a great scene, and so painful to watch. I dread watching it again, but I think I should. It’s nastier than anything Black Widow or Kylo Ren ever get to do.
It doesn’t take a genius who’s won the Macarthur Genius Grant to glean that Baumbach, who was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the finest actors of this or any other generation, cheated on his wife with Greta Gerwig when they were making Greenberg back in the day, got divorced, and fought over custody of their son before they settled things and Leigh got primary custody in LA, is using this flick to not only talk about his past, maybe to apologise to Jennifer a bit, but also to display how fucking exhausting getting divorced is. Also, as if we needed the lesson, he goes into the manipulative minutiae around divorce law that these shysters use to extract every advantage and penny that they can.
He also remembers the moments of intimacy, like knowing what the former partner would want to eat, or giving a haircut, or tying a shoe lace, that show even if bonds are severed permanently, there can still be moments of kindness based on years of caring for people. As hope dies (of getting someone back, or of getting things back to where they were before), it can be replaced by something else, some other kind of hopeful approach where people don’t have to wish screaming death upon each other.
I don’t know if it’s a positive message, but it will have to do. Any unmarried person who watches Marriage Story will probably never get married. Married people or long term partners who watch this: there’s hope for you yet if you can sit through this without contemplating divorce, but honestly, go easy on each other. Let your kindness remain.
9 times spite is a good way of getting back at someone, almost as good as revenge out of 10
“God is in heaven. God is the father and God didn't show up. So, you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be a fuck up and it doesn't matter. You will always be held to a different, higher standard. And it's fucked up, but that's the way it is.” – it’s unfair but so true – Marriage Story