Marriage Story

MARRIAGE STORY seems like kind of a cheeky name for a movie about a divorce. I first learned of writer-director Noah Baumbach by seeing his fourth movie as a director, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. That was a movie clearly based on his childhood during his parents’ divorce, and here’s one clearly based on a divorce he himself had years after making that movie. The circle of life. Hakuna matata. Did you know he was a writer on MADAGASCAR 3?

The best-picture-nominated-straight-to-Netflix-but-it’s-coming-to-Criterion MARRIAGE STORY has all the dry humor, smart dialogue and outstanding, emotional performances his movies are known for (three of them also Oscar nominated), and the heartache and discomfort the topic demands, but somehow it feels kind of… warm for Baumbach? And even kind of romantic?

Part of that comes down to our Noah Baumbach character — I mean our male lead — not coming across as as much of a self-regarding dickbag as some of the others. Charlie (Adam Driver, one episode of Law & Order, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG) runs a small New York theater company, directing plays that often star his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, THE SPIRIT), a former teen movie star. Charlie is entirely at fault for the dissolution of the marriage, he has the least excusable behavior and turns out to have serious emotional issues he’s left unaddressed. But he seems to be going at this divorce thing in good faith, trying to do it as amicably as possible, even trying to stay friends.

That’s sort of the unusual hook here. They’re not at war. They think they’re not like those other divorces. They want a more laidback, enlightened one. They start out with a mediator (Robert Smigel, writer, A Comedy Salute to Michael Jordan), neither worrying too much about how they’ll divide up their money and property. But while in her home town of L.A. to film a TV pilot and staying with her mom (Julie Hagerty, U TURN) and sister (Merritt Wever, three episodes of Law & Order playing different characters, one of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, GREENBERG) she’s convinced to go to highly recommended divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern, A PERFECT WORLD, JAY-Z: MADE IN AMERICA, COLD PURSUIT), and everything escalates.

Baumbach is clearly not fond of California divorce law, but it’s not the usual “she got half” stuff. He just illustrates numerous ways two people who still have love for each other and have a son together are pushed into being cutthroats to protect themselves from outcomes they don’t believe the other wants anyway.

I think these are relatable characters despite traveling in worlds I don’t occupy: New York and Los Angeles, theater and film/television. Nicole and Charlie each have a scene where they sing a number from a Sondheim musical for/with friends and family, and I feel like there must be meaning to the song choices that are beyond me. (I was impressed that Driver could sing, though!) I know there are people who don’t like Baumbach, Hal Hartley or Sofia Coppola because they don’t share the privileged background those filmmakers draw from, but I don’t have that problem. Good characters are good characters.

It seems to me Dern might’ve gotten her Oscar nomination more from burgeoning recognition of her overall wonderfulness, and for Baumbach’s scripting of a memorable speech she makes, than for the specific performance. Then again it’s hard to picture who else could so perfectly inhabit this character who is basically despicable in her job but still comes off pretty likable because she’s genuinely supportive and even empowering to her clients. The mediator was way nicer but he couldn’t even get Nicole to read out loud something she’d already written about Charlie’s good qualities. Nora, just in conversations, inspires Nicole to open up about the marriage in such a way that she seems to be putting together what exactly she feels about it as she says it.

I already wrote that Johansson’s performance in JOJO RABBIT was a new high for her, and here’s another one. She jumps a couple levels as an actress in that scene alone. Even setting aside the control she has over a slow burn of emotions as she explains what made her decide she had to leave Charlie, it’s rare to see such an authentic sense of thinking and coming up with words in such a scripted scene. And I believe she does it mostly in a long take, doesn’t she? Her version of Tony Jaa fighting his way up the stairway in TOM YUM GOONG.

Another straight up bravura sequence is when she’s at her mom’s house waiting for Charlie to arrive in town and needs her sister Cassie to serve him the divorce papers. It’s a total ambush, because he still thinks they’re mediating, and remains on great terms with Cassie and mother-in-law Sandra. Sandra doesn’t even want the divorce to happen, Cassie is nervous about confrontation, and Nicole doesn’t want it to be hurtful to Charlie. And they end up in this horribly awkward situation where he comes in and everybody’s in the wrong place and he’s hugging and joking around with the family with the envelope sitting on the counter, a ticking time bomb. I was literally squirming (ls).

After that the movie seems to lean heavier on Charlie’s point of view. He goes through a couple different lawyers, more of these great Baumbach characters who somehow feel simultaneously dead-on and humorously exaggerated. Bert (Alan Alda, MURDER AT 1600) is an unbelievably nice and sensitive divorce lawyer, and not coincidentally has a much more rinky-dink office than the very successful Nora. On the hand there’s Jay (Ray Liotta, COP LAND), sort of the macho, woman-fearing equivalent of Nora. His only redeeming quality is his apparent sincerity in wanting to protect his client. As Charlie tells him honestly that Nicole’s not out to get him Jay’s eyes bulge with panic like he’s saying he left all his money stacked up on the sidewalk but it’s okay because it’s a good neighborhood. Get Jay and Nora facing off in court and they pull out every dirty trick in the book, weaponizing every petty detail they know (she logged into his email, he didn’t know the rental car wouldn’t have the car seat already strapped in) while Charlie and Nicole sit mortified and helpless.

Meanwhile, they have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, one episode of Law & Order: SVU, JULIET, NAKED), who they want to share custody with, but that won’t happen if Henry doesn’t rent a place in California and be in town often enough, while running his theater company on the other side of the country. He has to fight for it even though Nicole wants him to have it and Henry doesn’t seem to give that much of a shit. One of the most potent scenes to me is when Charlie comes into town to spend Halloween with Henry. They have a plan for trick-or-treating in Universal Monster costumes that changes while Charlie is out of town. He ends up waiting at a hotel, then driving the kid around for a second round of trick-or-treating while he’s tired and wants to go home. It’s not the magical holiday either wanted, but it’s more of a disappointment for the parent than the kid.

The detail that trick-or-treating is important to Charlie comes up in a different way later when he’s sadly left out of the family’s themed costumes, but at least gets to go along. Since his costume is a sheet ghost we don’t get to see how he’s taking it.

For all the sadness in this – some with an edge of dark humor, some without – it does have the happiest realistic outcome you could hope for in this story. In the end they are divorced and have moved on, but they still like each other. It really is a story about marriage.

I haven’t kept track of Baumbach’s personal life other than that he’s been with Greta Gerwig for a while, but a quick look at his Wikipedia page makes it obvious what inspired the movie: met Jennifer Jason Leigh while she was starring in a Broadway play, they got married, have a son together, she filed for divorce in Los Angeles. He says he also talked to many of his friends who had been through divorces, and that Leigh liked the script and the film.

I’ve only mentioned this in one review before, but it seems relevant to say that I’m married going on ten years. I have not been divorced and don’t expect to. I think it’s a good marriage, but she’s sometimes less happy with it than I am. I was a little nervous to watch this together, unsure what feelings it would dig up. Since we don’t have children or money there’s so much that doesn’t apply directly to our lives, but the lack of those things can sometimes be a sensitive issue. If I have a weakness in common with Charlie I think it’s the stubborn dedication to my small time (smaller than his) artistic endeavors, sometimes oblivious to whether or not Mrs. Vern is satisfied with the lifestyle they require. But I’m sure there are other parallels. At the end of that scene I talked about before, when he’s served the divorce papers, he’s holding the envelope and he says, “So… what do I do?” and Nicole explains to him the next steps he has to take. I knew, watching that, that I would ask the same question, and my wife later said the same thing. An uncomfortable scenario to picture yourself in, but maybe it’s best not to fear these things.

For me I think it had enough distance from my experiences that I could enjoy it in the normal way of watching a story about someone’s lives, relating to small things, not necessarily being deeply personally invested. My wife had a much stronger reaction, I think mostly because her parents are divorced and don’t speak to each other. Mine were still married when sickness separated them. So that Nicole and Charlie make it through peacefully warms my heart, but stabs at hers.

(Don’t worry, I was given permission to include this in the review without redactions – Mrs. Vern says she trusts the outlawvern.com readers.)

I bring that up mainly as evidence that this is probly a good movie even for people who haven’t ever been married, and not necessarily a drag for people who have. If you like Baumbach you should check it out – I think it’s one of his best.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 7:27 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Marriage Story”

  1. I don’t really keep tabs on Baumbach, whose Woody Allen lite routine isn’t really my jam, but it seems like his movies got less hateful after he got together with Gerwig. MARRIAGE STORY has some real darkness and bitterness in it, but it also cares about the 2 leads and allows them to be sympathetic, even when they are flawed or make mistakes.

    There was a real opportunity here to do something self-serving with the Driver character, assuming he’s Baumbach’s stand-in, but I like that it recognizes that he WAS being selfish in his career choices and oblivious to Johansson’s needs. You feel for the guy, but once you start to see the fuller picture, you realize he really shouldn’t have been so blindsided by her actions.

    My divorce was pretty much the opposite of this one (nasty and vicious on a personal level, with no attempt to maintain connections afterwards, but cooperative and straightforward when it came time for the legal stuff), but I do think MARRIAGE STORY hits at some truths about how it feels to have such a big part of your life and personal identity turn into something shitty. Didn’t love it overall, but I felt some of it very deeply.

    Did anyone find it weird that the movie has almost no interest in how any of this affects their son? Honestly, it would be too much to add to an already overlong movie, but he’s frequently present without really being given a personality, mostly used as a prop in the larger story. Baumbach already made his movie about a divorced couple from the kids’ perspective, but the disinterest in the son in this one is conspicuous.

  2. So the two songs they sing are both from the musical COMPANY, which is about a guy named Bobby, his friends (a bunch of New York couples), and their relationship problems.

    Johansson sings “You Could Drive A Person Crazy”, which in the show is actually sung by three different women together about Bobby’s refusal to commit to one of them. Basically they’re all complaining about what an asshole he’s being by just playing games with them all.

    Driver sings “Being Alive”, which is the last song in COMPANY and in the context of the show, it’s basically Bobby coming to grips with the fact that he’s in his mid-30s and realizing he *does* want to finally commit to someone.

    For its time (1970), COMPANY was unusual in how it dealt so directly and relatively realistically with actual relationship problems, so it’s an appropriate choice for this particular flick.

  3. Dan – the movie is obviously more interested in the parents, but one important part of the son’s character is that he really loves California and wants to stay there. this mainly serves to highlight charlie’s selfishness, but it also bucks the typical trend in divorce movies where the kid is really struggling to make both parents happy. here he doesn’t really care and just wants to play with his new friends and move on.

    i liked this one but not as much as other recent baumbach hits. Vern, if you like baumbach’s softer side, i also recommend Frances Ha, Mistress America, and The Meyerowitz Stories, all of which are great. especially Mistress America, his most underrated and probably funniest film.

  4. I really thought this one was stunning. This is not my typical Friday night Netflix watch (no one even gets shot in it). It had so much buzz, and I was trying to see everything nominated for best picture this year so I gave it a shot. Honestly, I was surprised how much I loved it. I haven’t seen any other Baumbach movies, but will in the next week or two.

    Both leads are just phenomenal. Really flawless performances. I feel like Laura Dern’s performance, while wonderful, is getting a little over hyped.

    I am an attorney. I don’t handle domestic law, but I know many who do, and I also have been through many mediations and hearings like the ones depicted here. When I had my own office, it very much had the feel of Alan Alda’s office, but with dogs instead of a cat. He was great as well.

    Pretty poor post on my part here, I just don’t know what else to say about this one. I would just point out that if talky dramas are really not your cup of tea, give it a shot, regardless.

  5. john,

    That’s sort of my point: the son is more of a plot device than a character. he motivates the lead characters, but is given no inner life of his own. I’m not saying it’s a flaw, necessarily, just an unexpected choice that really stood out to me.

  6. I may be giving them too much credit, but I almost thought the child was a “non character” on purpose. I feel like in a lot of real life divorces, people are so focused on winning and getting what they want, that the children become objects. Or maybe, the movie was just so damned full of characters and story lines that they decided to give it a rest.

  7. I always appreciate your reviews. I hope you keep doing them as long as possible.

  8. This one really blew me away. I followed some online advice and watched it without my significant other, but now I wish I’d watched it with her. Yes, it was a bit soul-crushing, but also way more subtle and tender than I was expecting. Certainly not what the Driver/Johansson shouting match memes would have you believe. No real villains here, even the horrible divorce lawyers genuinely seem to be looking out for the best interests of their clients. I liked how they would tear down eachothers’ clients in court and then chat amicably in the corridor afterwards.

  9. I really liked this, but it’s a horror story if you’re married with a young kid, especially if one or both of you work in the arts.

  10. I think it’s interesting that with this review Vern has now covered all the best film Oscar nominees in what feels like an entirely natural way, i.e. without really deviating far from whatever we might imagine the editorial line of the sight is. This and LITTLE WOMEN are the biggest stretches and they both feel much more at home here than, say, THE KING’S PEACH or other equally over-(Weinstein)promoted middle-brow, period hokum. A good sign for the Oscars?

    Talking of period drama, I hope we do get a review of HARRIET. All the talk this year has been about Florence Pugh’s breakthrough, but Cynthia Erivo has really done the work these last couple of years and she is a star.

  11. I find it interesting that Vern so definitively states that “Charlie is entirely at fault for the dissolution of the marriage.” To me it seemed like the movie was going out of its way to make it clear that it’s not really anyone’s “fault,” but more the result of two people whose priorities shifted away from each other over time. It’s true that Charlie did cheat, which is a very uncool move, but it also seems pretty clear that Nicole was already pretty well done with the marriage by that point — in fact, in her long explanation to Lara Dern about why she wants a divorce, she only throws the infidelity in there at the very end, like it’s just one more annoyance that she just remembered. And Charlie seems to be the one who’s trying in good faith to make the marriage work, earnestly engaging in mediation (which she storms out of), and willing to be quite flexible with the family’s living arrangement.

    Basically, I interpret the scene where they end up screaming at each other as both of them making honest points. They both have legitimate and reasonable grievances with each other –irreconcilable differences, if you will– but it’s neither one’s fault, exactly. They just want different things. They’ve both behaved a little badly, probably, or at least both were responsible for making choices which led them to this point.

    I suppose since the movie primarily takes place from his perspective and gives him more of an arc, maybe it seems like he’s the one who needs to change, narratively speaking. But it seems to me his arc is more about coming to terms with the fact that Nicole has moved on than coming to terms with his failings as a husband.

    I dunno, what did you guys think? Did you get the sense that the movie sees one of them as more at fault than the other?

  12. I think that’s a good assessment, Subtlety. I described it that way because Charlie’s obliviousness to Nicole’s needs seemed to lead to the divorce, with none of Nicole’s actions ever being called into question. Which I suspect was a deliberate move on Baumbach’s part so it wouldn’t seem like grievances about his own divorce.

  13. Maybe I’m more jaded and cynical, but I vastly preferred THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. I don’t find any of the characters in either MARRIAGE STORY or THE SQUID AND THE WHALE relateable. But at least for SQUID, it’s more out there, so when the characters are doing things that fit their position in life and outlook, they’re more compelling to watch. This movie, on the other hand, is realistic, but the characters don’t behave as awfully or with as much well-drawn self-awareness and blind spots. Plus, I don’t know if it’s a cliche, but it sure feels like a cliche for acclaimed/popular theater/movie artists and actors to be self-absorbed and vain, and unaware of things not directly in their orbit. Unfortunately, that cliche is a gigantic chunk of this movie: these two people being dense to what the other one wants and too self-absorbed to consider basic things like what the other person wants and what the other person’s actions indicate that they want. I’m with Mr. Subtley in that the movie’s POV seems titled towards the divorce is ultimately nobody fault and that there’s bittersweet pain but there was also a lot great and both people may turn out great, just not with each other.

    And I have other tiny peeves that ding this movie. Beyond how these two are probably too young for the demographic they’re portraying, there’s like how Charlie–this genius director–stages numerous scenes quite poorly, which wouldn’t bother me except it seems completely by accident on the movie’s part. The script and movie are going to keep banging the drum that he may be a one in a generation thespian, while Nora absolutely tomahawk jams him with little acknowledgment.

  14. Nicole seems like she’s being unreasonable at first, but in that amazing scene with Laura Dern all her long-simmering resentments come tumbling out and you realise how long he’s been ignoring her and taking her for granted. And I think Charlie’s unspoken male-privelegy assumption that his career and his needs would just naturally take precedence over hers is something that probably rings true for a lot of people, including me.

    But I’ve also spoken to people who thought it stacked the deck a little in that we’re asked to take Nicole’s interpretation at face value. We don’t see their relationship dynamic play out as it happens, only the aftermath.

  15. Yes, Laura Dern is awesome at how she portrays how Nora expertly stages, directs, and performs in that scene. She’s got objectives, but is responsive and not a total bulldozer, even though her approach is hardly subtle. In contrast, Charlie is a near-complete disaster in most scenes where he’s got to cajole or influence somebody to do what he wants, particularly with the expert. It’s like he’s barely considered what their point of view and objectives could be, then when his wife reveals anything to him, he mostly either disbeliefs it, asserts his POV again and doesn’t bother to define any agreements he thinks have happens, or he doesn’t bother to peak or consider what’s behind the door that was cracked open in the conversation and just assumes things will work out how he wants for the most part. I’d probably like the movie more if Charlie seemed less oblivious to most things, and more calculated at points, but it didn’t work. (Sidebar: Marlon Brando, for instance, another thespian lauded as a genius, totally fell flat on his face as a witness in his son’s murder trial, although in fairness he was old, emotionally broken, and likely on an insane prescription and other drugs regimen.)

  16. I don’t wanna get all Men’s Rights about this, but it sure seems to me that while Charlie may be oblivious, Nicole hasn’t been very honest about what she wants, either. She’s the one who storms out of a mediation that he seems to be genuinely working with. She’s pretending that she wants to save their marriage, and he takes it seriously. Then she brings him (and their son!) to LA under essentially false pretenses, having already decided she’s ending the marriage and even hired a lawyer, apparently without ever bringing up the subject with Charlie, who is completely shell-shocked to learn that the marriage he’s been trying to save has been over in her mind for quite some time. And why? She views his burgeoning theatrical celebrity as stifling to her own identity, but to him, they’ve been building something together –for years!–, something that was intrinsically a huge part of his life before he even met her. I mean, from his perspective: she shows up, a big movie star, she marries a niche experimental theater director nobody, enjoys being a big fish in a little pond, and the minute people start to pay more attention to him than her, she decides he’s stifling her and she’s done with this marriage and he’s being selfish for devoting his life to the exact thing he’s always been devoting his life to, since long before she even met him! Without discussing it with him at all, she basically moves their son to LA and tells her soon-to-be ex that he needs to abandon his life and move there too if he wants to have any hope of being an active participant in their son’s future.

    None of this is to say I think Nicole’s the bad guy here, either. To me the movie is about how the two of them see the same situation from different perspectives, and that’s what comes between them. Obviously her perspective is just as legitimate, and obviously her complaints about him are valid. I’m just sort of surprised at everyone acting as if Nicole is the innocent victim of Charlie’s oafish selfishness. Not that he hasn’t been oblivious and selfish too, but I think she’s a bit selfish herself. Often –not always, but often– it takes two to miscommunicate, and I think that’s what has been happening in this marriage.

    Of course, I may just be prejudiced by the obvious fact that only a psychopath would want to move to LA. Charlie is 100% right about that, anyway.

  17. They’ve both given up on the marriage before the movie even starts, right? “As we mediate your separation and eventual divorce, things can get quite contentious.”

  18. Matthew B. No, Charlie, the dad character, goes through most of the movie not even wanting a divorce.

    This movie just naturally falls onto the side of things I am opposed to, having so many of it’s main elements being things I am not interested in engaging with or thinking about.

    1. Laura Dern. I’m just not a fan. I’m never happy to see her show up in things, and I’m not taken with the qualities others find so charming about her. Unfortunately for me she is now showing up in everything everywhere.

    2. Scarlett Johannsen and her pixie cut. She’s in the class of actors Hollywood thinks we can’t get enough of, even though so many of the movies she’s in aren’t great.

    3. Acting class movies: So much of this movie, especially Johannsen’s scenes, just seem like I’m watching someone practicing on a stage at a university auditorium and working themselves into a fit. That big fight they have at the end that doesn’t change anything is a good example.

    4. Divorce. I don’t understand why people get married or get divorced, but especially divorced when it’s just because someone is dissatisfied, as is the case here. “Marriage Story” definitely does not make me any more interested in marriage than I was before.

    5. Noah Baumbach. Everything about this guy seems manufactured, even his name, evoke overly precious NYC townhouse settings with awkward brainy characters. I feel like his target audience is his mom and her friends.

    6. The songs at the end. Why would anyone have went along with that?

  19. Thomas Caniglia: I was pushing back against the idea that Charlie was trying to save the marriage. He may not be wildly enthusiastic about the divorce, but he’s resigned to it and planning for it. That’s in the dialogue.

    I also wouldn’t agree that the big fight “doesn’t change anything.” Up till that point, Charlie has been unwilling to confront the situation too directly. The fight (and subsequent apology) is the first time that he’s really open about his feelings, to Nicole or to himself, and it leads in to his acceptance of the divorce settlement and eventually his move to California.

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