• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Marriage Story

Towards the end of Marriage Story, divorced dad Charlie Barber decides to check in on his son, Henry.

Charlie has been absent from his son’s life for quite some time, the toll of familial separation weighing heavily on him. Arriving home before his ex-wife Nicole, he finds a strange man in his life. His former mother-in-law has accepted his replacement. When Nicole arrives, the conversation makes it clear just how quickly her life has moved on without him. When somebody mentions that she has been nominated for a prestigious award, Charlie can’t even guess what she was nominated for.

Marriage of inconvenience.

It is Halloween. The family are getting ready to go out together. They have theme costumes. They are going as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is itself a reflection of the level of subtlety at which the film is pitching itself. Of course, Charlie was an unexpected arrival; whether because he failed to signal ahead or simply because he has been so completely erased from the life of his ex-wife and son that nobody gave any serious consideration to the possibility that he might show up. Hastily, one character suggests an improvised costume. “You can be a ghost.”

This is simultaneously the best and worst moment in Marriage Story, and generally indicative of how the movie operates.

Getting off-track.

There is a lot to like in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which is an ironically-titled study of the divorce of a relatively young couple split between New York and Los Angeles. Most obviously, and very much a strength heading into awards season, Marriage Story is anchored in an extremely likable ensemble that is populated with a set of extremely engaging supporting performers: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as three somewhat distinct divorce attorneys; Julie Hagerty as a mother-in-law caught between the couple; Wallace Shawn as an older actor with stories for days.

However, the two leading performances are the strongest aspect of Marriage Story. Adam Driver is a wonderfully tragic figure as Charlie, the theatre director who finds himself caught up in a divorce that he doesn’t really want and which seems designed to both alienate him from his family and turn him against them. Driver has enough flexibility to make the part work; suggesting just enough simmering anger that Charlie’s resentments feel organic, but never enough that it overwhelms the character’s humanity or empathy. Charlie is by turns a source of compassion and frustration, as he must be. It’s a nuanced performance.

Pillow silence.

Scarlett Johansson similarly does good work in a part that exists largely as projection. Marriage Story is largely told from Charlie’s perspective, focusing on his experience of a separation that he never wanted, and exploring the challenges that he faces trying to come to terms with both efforts to mediate that separation and forge a life for himself. In contrast, Nicole is presented as a more abstract figure. It isn’t that the audience sees Nicole exclusively through Charlie’s eyes, but the film still presents Nicole primarily through Charlie’s eyes. It is a tough and demanding role, and Johansson acquits herself well.

It also helps that Marriage Story courses with genuine emotion. The film takes its characters and their situation seriously, even as it occasionally explores the Kafka-esque black comedy of the escalating absurdity of proceedings. Charlie is repeatedly assured that the settlement won’t go to court, but that he still has to prepare to go to court, and in doing so makes it more likely that he will go to court. Still, even as it explores the absurdities of a system designed to turn former soul mates into vicious opponents, Marriage Story comes from a from place of empathy and compassion for its subjects. It never loses their humanity.

Courting chaos.

However, Marriage Story brushes against some serious limitations. Like a lot of Baumbach’s films, Marriage Story suffers from because it’s essentially two hours of wealthy people being increasingly unpleasant to one another in decidedly uncreative ways. Some of the film’s more awkward moments touch on the fact that the film’s central couple have the resources to ensure an evenly-matched drag-on fight. Indeed, early in the film, Charlie wins a grant that seems to exist purely so the film can justify prolonging proceedings as much as possible. (It also ensured that Charlie never feels unduly victimised by Nicole’s resources.)

Charlie repeatedly stresses that the divorce is bleeding him dry. It is wearing him down. It is costing him job opportunities. It is affecting him work. However, the film largely treats these elements as informed consequences, with Charlie articulating these stresses in a very direct manner. Charlie still manages to afford to pay for top-class attorneys, he still manages to fly across the country on a weekly basis, he still manages to support two homes on either side of the continental United States. The process depicted in Marriage Story is recognisable as a divorce, but a very consciously engineered and designed one.

That’s very (Ni)cold.

Marriage Story skilfully captures the emotional stresses of divorce – the paranoia, the escalation, the resentment. Charlie’s frustration is palpable as he watches the second hand clicking on a clock, thinking about his lawyer’s hourly rate. However, it also feels like an abstraction of the process. Midway through the film, Charlie’s lawyer explains that the system is not designed to cater for people like Nicole and Charlie, two well-educated and financially-secure minor celebrities. The lawyer argues that the system is designed to protect abused wives or broken families, to find safe homes for kids caught in a tug of war.

Marriage Story is sensitive and gentle enough that it doesn’t put too fine a point on this, but there is a stiltedness to all of this. There is something almost resentful in the way the film views the gauntlet that Charlie endures, in the absurd juxtaposition of Charlie and Nicole’s highly polished and overpriced lawyers moving through the hallway of a courthouse where lower-class families have to be forcibly separated from one another. For all the film’s empathy, it seems frustrated that these two wealthy and educated people have found themselves caught up in a system consciously designed with poor people in mind.

Divorce really blows.

Marriage Story also struggles to balance an extremely forced perspective with earnest attempts at even-handedness. Marriage Story is invested in Charlie’s experience of the divorce, consciously obscuring Nicole’s perspective and motivations for key stretches. It’s an effective approach. After all, these sorts of separations inevitably involve that sort of ambiguity and uncertainty; if couples going through this sort of separation were capable of maintaining clear lines of communication, this sort of process would not be necessary. Marriage Story deliberately puts the audience on Charlie’s side of the divide.

However the film is (perhaps understandably) wary of coming across of overly critical of Nicole in this whole process, of denying her humanity and of turning her into a cardboard cutout villain. So the film attempts to compensate for her lack of development by offering Nicole small exaggerated moments of humanity amid the emotional carnage. Marriage Story bends over backwards to assure the audience that Nicole is not a bad person, while also trying to emphasise the emotional and financial carnage that she has wrought upon Charlie.

Now we’re laughing.

As a result, these gestures at Nicole’s empathy feel largely tokenistic. She balks at her lawyer advocating that she deserves a greater share of custody of their son instead of an even 50-50 split, but this seems cynical given her decision to initiate proceedings in California to deny Charlie even access. She offers to cut Charlie’s hair, but after making a point to passive-aggressively exclude him from their son’s Halloween. She gingerly ties Charlie’s shoe lace when she notices that it is undone, but only after literally dressing him as a ghost while the rest of the family have worn themed costumes excluding him.

There’s an awkward sense of Marriage Story trying to have its cake and eat it, to present a victim in this process without ever implicating a victimiser. Again, like the decision to provide Charlie with a grant in order to even the financial playing field, it feels like a very calculated approach to the story being told. It is entirely reasonable that Marriage Story wants to avoid stewing in resentment or presenting Nicole as a clear-cut villain, but its efforts to mitigate those potential problems all feel very cynical and manipulative. For a film that places such emphasis on naturalism, the set-up is very forced.

Family matters.

Either approach to Marriage Story could work. A story focusing exclusively on Charlie’s subjective perspective of the familial separation would offer a stark and intimate character sketch. In contrast, a story adopting a more objective narrative position contrasting Charlie and Nicole’s experiences could also be revealing and insightful. Marriage Story ultimately tries to split the difference between two very different approaches to the same material, and ends up the poorer for that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: