I’ve never been through a divorce, but I know what it’s like to invest passionately in the lifestyle choices that make you want to get up in the morning. I recently read a column by one of my colleagues who found this movie to be ridiculous; in her mind, the two leading characters should just get over themselves and their theatrical careers. That would be the solution. But it isn’t that simple. A lot of people have children and find out that trying to make parenting work while also having a fulfilling life outside of the family is hard. As a man with no kids, I found Marriage Story very relatable.
The couple at the center of this marriage story are the Barbers. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a New York City theater director, hoping to score a success on Broadway; Nicole is an actress who had a hit movie many years ago and is now part of her husband’s theater company. Together they have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). They’re both deeply committed to this community and enterprise, and Charlie is about to receive a sorely needed grant. But Nicole has nonetheless decided to divorce Charlie. Now that she has been offered a role in a TV pilot out in Los Angeles (where she was born), she finds this the right time to act.
Being served the divorce papers comes as no great surprise to Charlie, but when Nicole finds an aggressive lawyer in the shape of Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), he learns quickly that there are many rules to this process that he has no choice but to respect…
Inspired by their own divorces
You can’t help but feel this is some kind of Kramer vs. Kramer for this era; even the kid looks a little like Justin Henry in that movie and there are scenes when Charlie has to contend with his rebellious son. Noah Baumbach was inspired by his parents’ divorce (which makes The Squid and the Whale (2005) an interesting movie to watch again) and his own; Jennifer Jason Leigh filed for divorce in 2010. Along the way, the film was also informed by the experiences of Johansson, Driver and Dern who in one way or the other have also been affected by divorces.
The film depicts the collapse of a marriage on two levels – the emotional and the technical. As for the latter, we learn how complicated the process of a divorce can be when the lawyers are hired, especially when the welfare of a child is at the center of disagreement. The supporting cast is simply amazing, with Dern and Ray Liotta as two seasoned sharks in the world of L.A. litigation; professionally courteous toward each other outside the courtroom, but in front of a judge it’s always knives out. Then there’s Alan Alda as Bert, the first lawyer Charlie hires. Also a pro, but old and too timid to fight the way Nora likes it. It’s a cynical game and the symbolism is clever; everybody’s performing on a stage, following a preconceived scenario, pretty much the same way as Charlie and Nicole would stage a play. Only this time they are sort of the audience, left with very few choices to make an impact on events.
As for the emotional part, Johansson and Driver are equally forceful and brilliant; we understand both characters’ concerns and we are horrified (and fascinated) to see them at their worst during a long, riveting sequence where their argument builds to a shameful outburst.
They are credible and Baumbach’s commitment to the world they feel bound to, art and the theater, has a ring of truth; this is also perhaps the least quirky film he has ever made.
Marriage Story 2019-U.S.-Britain. 137 min. Color. Produced by Noah Baumbach, David Heyman. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Music: Randy Newman. Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson… Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Wallace Shawn.
Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Dern).
Last word: “If anything, this movie only illustrates that to take sides at all is folly. When it begins, we’re with her: we’re in LA, where she grew up, with her mum and her sister. She’s telling her story. But then he turns up, and we drift into his. I feel like the job of the last part of the movie is to say: it’s all true, and none of it’s true. These are just people trying their best. Her story is one of momentum, rebuilding and finding her voice, and his is a story of breaking down; it’s a kind of role reversal, because he’s a director and she’s an actor – not that I want to stereotype those roles. But I also think that her monologue and his song at opposite ends of the movie are mirror images of something: in a way, both of them find their voice.” (Baumbach, The Guardian)