When screenwriter/director Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha) came onto the scene in 2005 with his family drama The Squid and the Whale he announced himself as someone who would bring us intimate, small and poignant films about human life. The kind of films many would lable as art house. While he has definitely remained someone who does indie films over the next 14 years, Baumbach has done something a little different with his 2019 Netflix produced film, Marriage Story.
What is different here is the openess and vulnerability Baumbach shows. This is a very personal film for him. In every respect. It is a story of his life. His marriage with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh ended in divorce in 2013. This obviously difficult and traumatic occurence marked him. As artists do he poured that experience into his work. It has become Marriage Story.
Our romantic lives are something that we are infinitely interested in. We make films about how couples fall in love and when they fall out of love. Divorce is difficult for everyone involved. The couple and the kids, if there are any. As beautifully as we portray the beginning of relationships is as ugly as the ending has come to exist on the big screen.
When you endeavour to portray a human experience the more universal it is the more it touches the viewer. The more universal, the more relatable. This film, showing all the hurt involved when a marriage ends, forges to be honest as possible. Never sugar coating things. Demonstrating that in most instances when a marriage ends it is not a single person’s fault.
Charlie (Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Dead Don’t Die) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson – Lost in Translation, Jojo Rabbit) have created their own little world together. Working together in the New York theatre environment, they have founded a theatre company along with having a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson – Juliet, Naked, Time Out).
Things between the two have broken down and they have decided to get a divorce. In the beginning, they want to come to an agreement between each other while remaining friends. Not really involving lawyers. During this time Nicole decides to return to Los Angeles to work on a television pilot bringing Henry with her. Charlie travels back and forth between New York and Los Angeles to see his son.
Despite their initial intentions, lawyers become involved. Nicole has hired Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern – Wild, Jurassic Park) and Charlie has Bert Spitz (Alan Alda – from television’s MASH) and then the more cutthroat, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta – Goodfellas, The Place Beyond the Pines). Things become ugly.
What is rather unique about Marriage Story is how, in a subtle way, it shows how treacherous divorce law and lawyers are. Take all the life and love out of a marriage. Removing the humanity. Just looking to “win” without acknowledging that no one ever does. Also, the child becomes something each side uses in their desire for victory. What is best for the child is lost in the legal scuffle. As they say, all is fair in love and war.
At times you wonder if they are going to get back together. It is not a spoiler to say that they never do. Rather it is a realistic depictiong of the end of a relationship. Neither hates the other (despite the epic fight scene which is filled with bile and nastiness). They just can no longer live together as a couple. Normal.
While this is a highly watchable film, with strong performances by Johansson (amongst the best of her career) and Driver, but it does paint some false notes. A lot of Baumbach’s work is rather intellectual. Being smart is not a fault, but attempting to be too clever is. There is some pomposity in all his films. It keeps you separated from the emotion. This film is all about the emotion. He has a hard time not occasionally intelluctualizing what is an emotional part of many people’s lives. The words that fall out of their mouths is not always as raw and unpolished as they can be.
Traveling along the path forged by a film like Kramer vs. Kramer this is another chapter in the story of marriage. The last chapter is often when the most happens. It is not a happy ending…at this point, anyway.