“It takes the time to examine its characters with the deep and critical attention to place it with the best of movies about families.”
by Ken Bakely
Perhaps it’s to be expected that Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story has inspired extensive, often spurious debate over whose “side” the movie is on. While reducing the complexities of these characters to a binary question of support for one or the other – as if one is entirely in the right and one is entirely in the wrong – is silly and reductive, it perhaps speaks more broadly to the film’s observational prowess and emotional depths that people assume that it must have some ideological underpinning that unlocks the mystery of its efficacy. We watch the movie with empathy, discomfort, anguish, and amusement, sometimes all over the stretch of one scene, and yet the film never feels disorganized. Instead, it achieves this myriad of reactions because it takes the time to examine its characters with the deep and critical attention to place it with the best of movies about families. It follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a divorcing couple who have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). He is a New York-based theatre director; she is an actor for whom new developments in her career are leading her back to her hometown of Los Angeles. They hope that their separation can be handled amicably, with the best of interests for each other and their child, but of course, things are not so simple. As lawyers get involved, those lofty hopes quickly disintegrate.
Long-suppressed baggage and business comes up in major ways, complicating matters to the point of suffocation and putting both parties into a maelstrom all the more heartbreaking as it becomes the exact thing they strove to avoid. An important decision that Baumbach makes here is letting the unraveling of the marriage serve as our window into the relationship’s past. This begins even in the first scene, in which Charlie and Nicole, in voiceover, explain the qualities about the other that they admire the most. This is revealed to be excerpts from essays they wrote in therapy, which they are assigned to read to each other on the spot, but never do. Seeing them together in the therapist’s office at the start, we see how their physical proximity, when they are in the same room, is merely that: a core conflict of the divorce is a dispute over which city they are based in, which carries consequences for Henry. In a trio of wonderfully unsettling performances, the matter is soon exploited by Nora (Laura Dern), Nicole’s counsel; and the two lawyers that Charlie cycles through over the course of the divorce, first the deliberate Bert (Alan Alda), and then the brash Jay (Ray Liotta).
It’s clear that bridges can’t be mended to where they once were, and the film guides us through that realization and how things got there. Consider an oft-discussed element of the film, with two scenes featuring the two former partners, on opposite sides of the country, singing songs from the musical Company, a show which takes a complicated, critical, but ultimately hopeful look at marriage and relationships. Certainly, the songs takes new meaning for both individuals as they sing, and we see them realize it as it happens. It’s a further sign of how the movie is all about perspective, in seeing what was gained and lost, and how each change happened. Marriage Story is nearly forensic in its structuring – though its essence comes from its intensity of feeling, there is also control and reflection. For another example, I think of a small bit of business that’s referenced in a few scenes, in which Charlie is said to perform a party trick of sorts, in which he purports to run his pocket knife blade across his forearm, but then reveals that he has not actually broken the skin. Later on in the film, he performs it, and accidentally cuts himself. All this talk about how one can do something without actually feeling a thing, but it could never really be true forever, could it?
We see the breakdown in understanding between the couple, which becomes all too resentful as their attorneys seek to make it a focal point of the other side’s legal weaknesses. Marriage Story proceeds through indeterminate periods of time, rendering it nearly tangential, and while I have had issues with that approach in previous Baumbach films, it seems to work here, as time becomes an indistinct, exhausting figure. Through Driver and Johansson’s staggering performances, cycling through the conflicting emotions that push and pull their characters directions they themselves may not agree with, we are put through the wringer as we examine Charlie and Nicole at a place where things have fallen apart. The disagreements and the lack of communication which slowly drove them apart eventually reveal their meanings in real and lasting ways, but never without Baumbach’s textured, complex, and ultimately greatly empathetic approach, which contrasts itself with the clinical legal battles swirling around the couple, and remains fixated on the human core: the messy, contradictory, consuming, profoundly felt emotional center of the film whose encompassing nature gives it such moving power.