“Marriage Story” is a horror story.
Don’t get me wrong – this is not a scary movie, at least not in the traditional sense. In places, it is quite beautiful.
But like every good horror movie, the characters in “Marriage Story” are the victims of their own jaw-droppingly poor choices. Noah Baumbach’s film made me want to scream at Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) about every word, every action and every almost imperceptible facial expression that they used to widen the expanse between them.
Like every good horror story, this one ends with a death. And no amount of shouting at your TV can do anything about it.
“Marriage Story”, as you may have gathered already, is about marriage but also about divorce. It borrows extensively from writer-director Baumbach’s own life in telling the story of a separation between a New York-based creative type named Charlie and his ambitious actress wife Nicole.
The screaming at the TV starts early when Nicole refuses to read a statement she wrote regarding what she loves about Charlie during couples counselling. The film’s first seven minutes, where these statements are used to narrate scenes from the couple’s marriage, make for one of the most stunningly beautiful sequences I’ve seen all year, accompanied by a sweepingly romantic Randy Newman score.
From there, the bad decisions pile up. Charlie decides to stay in New York to focus on his career while his wife and his son move to Los Angeles. Nicole hires a lawyer despite telling Charlie she wouldn’t. Charlie fires his own lawyer (Alan Alda) when he deems him to be too civil. And on and on it goes.
Divorce isn’t about falling out of love, the film tells us. It’s about choices. And, no matter how much they try to be amicable and to put their son first, Nicole and Charlie keep making the wrong ones.
In contrast to his onscreen alter ego, Baumbach makes a lot of the right choices, starting with casting. Driver has always been something of a blank slate (I may or may not have called him “inscrutably bland” on this very website), but he is the perfect blank slate onto which Baumbach can cast his own anxieties and failings as a husband and father. Johansson, for her part, has maybe never been lovelier than she is when conveying her affection, anger and pain in this film. Her solitary tear while reading “Stuart Little” with her son and soon-to-be ex is the image that defines this film for me.
Dern, Alda and Ray Liotta as the various lawyers chew scenery and speak hard truths. Julie Hagerty and Wallace Shawn, as Nicole’s mother and a veteran theater actor respectively, add some much-needed comic relief. Driver and Johansson are the stars, but character actors like these can make a movie, and they make this one.
Newman’s score is, for my money, the best thing he’s produced in 50 years of film scores. It is sumptuously romantic, but reveals new depths each time it is repeated within the film.
For his part, Baumbach deserves credit for remembering that this is a marriage story first and foremost. His script depicts all his characters with love and compassion. There are no bad guys, just victims – of selfishness, of stubbornness and of a legal system that is too eager to profit on pain.
But it also feels like Baumbach is too willing to profit on pain himself by turning his real-life divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh into Oscar-bait. “Marriage Story” is a film that is impeccably crafted, but it’s also a painful slog for most of the running time. There are moments of great beauty but little hope to be found. It is ostensibly a comedy, but I am struggling to recall a single joke just hours after watching it.
I left “Marriage Story” (rated R for language throughout and sexual references) with an overwhelming feeling of pain and sadness, which certainly speaks to Baumbach’s gifts as a filmmaker. But it also begs a question: If you are going to make a romantic comedy with no romance and very little comedy, why would you want to tell this story?
More importantly, why would anybody want to watch it?
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.