MARRIAGE STORY (2019, Noah Baumbach)
In the 1980s, an adolescent Noah Baumbach witnessed his novelist father divorcing his literary critic mother in Brooklyn. You don’t need to know this background to watch Baumbach’s 2005 dramedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, about an adolescent (Jesse Eisenberg) living in Brooklyn through the divorce between his two writer parents, to sense that there’s a lot of autobiography there — and it doesn’t matter, because great art takes specific details and makes them universal by appealing to larger audiences. In that film’s case, by telling a story about family in general, and about children coming to terms with the flaws of their parents.
Also in 2005, Baumbach married actress Jennifer Jason Leigh — whom he met in theater, and who made her breakthrough in the teen comedy FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH — and later had one son with her, before she served him in 2010, beginning a three-year divorce process that forced Baumbach to write 2012’s MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED in order to pay his lawyer. This is more information you don’t need to know in order to watch MARRIAGE STORY — about a director being served divorce papers by his theatrical actress wife (who made her breakthrough in a teen comedy), the toll it takes on their one son, and the burdensome cost of divorce layers (necessitating the director to take shitty hackwork) — because again, it’s plainly obvious how autobiographical it is. This time around, though, it doesn’t quite transcend the specifics and have the kind of broad universal effect SQUID had, or even his tremendous 2013 work FRANCES HA. It doesn’t feel like the way Marriage is, the way Love is, the way Divorce Happens, or What It Is To Be a Parent During a Separation in any universal way, more than it feels like what all those things specifically were to Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (By contrast, as poorly executed and painfully unfunny as it was, at least DOWNSIZING managed to turn Alexander Payne’s divorce drama with Sandra Oh into something greater than his own particular baggage).
So, despite the stellar turns from Johansson and Driver (and Dern, Alda, Wever, and Liotta, etc.), and the acutely realized moments of humor, sadness, and irony, maybe that’s why this didn’t quite land an emotional impact with me the way SQUID and FRANCES did, or even THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. The choice to hide Driver’s anger entirely until he explodes during the centerpiece argument scene might make sense theoretically (Charlie is a man who has had to hide a lot of his emotions throughout), but dramatically it comes out of nowhere and fractures Driver’s character and performance in a way that seems contrived. Johansson, by contrast, is much more straight forward; she seems locked in and aware of who she is from moment one — and that makes her movie-long arc of finding her voice and asserting her individuality welcome and enviable. And even the tiny moments she has are pitch-perfect: like when she holds steady during an early conversation with Charlie until she crosses through a doorway into a room where she can be alone, and bursts into tears.
One more thing I want to address is that I’ve seen some social media coffee-housing that the divorce lawyers aren’t really the enemy here. Some critics are appalled that anyone would take away from this movie that Dern, Liotta & co. are bad guys. And yes, Dern is so good that she creates a likable character on charisma alone. But she isn’t a heroine gifting Johansson the justice that’s rightfully hers. According to Baumbach (in a Director’s Guild interview with Ben Stiller), the lawyers smother the real voices of this couple, and turn the divorce into simply dividing assets and competing against each other. And the centerpiece apartment fight is the two of them getting their voices back, and re-learning how to communicate between each other, since that was taken from them once the lawyers got involved. Clearly, categorically, Baumbach sees the lawyers as detrimental to the relationship between Nicole and Charlie, so if you want to argue that the movie doesn’t see it that way (which you certainly can), then the extent to which the lawyers aren’t enemies is the extent to which Baumbach failed to get his point across.