“Marriage Story,” October 23, 2020 (2019), DVD of film made for Netflix. I’ve been a big fan of director Noah Baumbach since I emerged deep in thought (well, for me) from his 2005 The Squid and the Whale. This look at a Brooklyn couple’s dissolution in 1986, as one artistic career, the father’s, collapses while another, the mother’s, ascends, was both humorous and profoundly disturbing. As the couple dissolves, their two sons, struggle painfully to find their ways through the experience.
And now, welcome to “Marriage Story,” where a bi-coastal divorce pits two successful, career driven parents against one another in a cage match of emotional pain even as they both claim to be committed to an amicable, even peaceful, settlement, with shared care and time with their 8-year old son, Henry. While humorous in parts, this one is a sad look at the process of marital dissolution and the price exacted all-round–except, of course, on the lawyers.
Charlie (Adam Driver, Bronwen’s Alan Rickman replacement heart-throb—note the similarities) is a successful, creative avant-garde director in New York’s Off-Broadway theater scene. He’s about to move his latest to Broadway. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson who I appreciate only for exceptional talent as an actress and singer) is both his draw as a leading lady and his staunchest supporter. His muse? That remains to be seen. Nicole is desperate to feel herself the center of her own life and career, while Charlie wants his, constructed with her as junior partner, to proceed as before. Divorce mediation in NYC collapses, and when she leaves with Henry, and moves out to Hollywood to resume her career, this time in TV, she’s going to stay in that wonderful “space,” living with her mom Sandra (Julie Hagarty of Airplane!). Charlie’s arrival in LA brings news of his receipt of a Macarthur Fellowship. Is it his or theirs?
And then the lawyers get involved in this California divorce; first with shark Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, Oscar for this one) and almost sane nice guy Bert Spitz (a shaking Alan Alda) and then fellow shark Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta). Things move quickly to hardball and the accusations fly. The process degrades all the while Nicole is building a new career in LA, Henry is falling in love with his new home, and Charlie is struggling to maintain his career in NYC. A state observer arrives as a neutral to evaluate each parent. While Nicole the actor takes direction from Nora, Charlie the director loses control of his scene. Theater becomes reality. Nicole wants to be the director in her own artistic, personal and sexual life.
Baumbach, who has vehemently stated this was not a take on his own divorce, speaks from his element, the artistic elite on both coasts, and he knows them well. Not surprisingly, this allows for lots of funny snipes at theater egos and TV folk banalities. But the overall tone here is sad, a timbre accentuated by the Randy Newman soundtrack that sometimes works and other times feels just anachronistic. And the losses experienced are not equal, as back-to-back songs from Sondheim’s “Company,” make clear. One is a comic, biting, chipper ironic number “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” sung by Nicole and her mother and sister at a party, while the other is Charlie’s plaintive “Being Alive” sung initially with irony and then with an acute sense of loss in a bar.
This is a very good film. At its best, it plumbs questions of gender roles, love vs. control, parenting, and roles in relationships. What better place than the arts, with actors and directors, to take a look at these questions of roles? I would, however, love to see Baumbach move beyond his focus on the community and egos he knows. That knowledge makes for verisimilitude and an effective film. But does it reflect a limited imaginative range? I guess part of my irritation here is being tired of plays, films and TV about theater, film and TV. Perhaps it also reflects our collective fascination with celebrities and beautiful, talented people. He hints at that limit when he notes that the California rules of divorce are designed for different folks than form this story’s core. Still, I wish he’d move beyond these folks; are we that uninteresting or are we just less beautiful?
[I wrote this before watching the supplements included in the Criterion DVD package. I just did and would definitely suggest watching them if you’re fortunate enough to see this on DVD.]