NYFF57: Marriage Story

Contrary to what the title implies, Marriage Story is about the painful, almost incomprehensible intricacies of divorce. It’s predictable in that regard - you know the general direction the film’s going to take within the first ten minutes, or if you looked up the premise on Google. You know it’s going to be sad, and the subject matter will make it hard to watch at points. No one likes divorce. No one likes dealing with the lawyers who make things overly technical and ring up a fortune, no one likes fighting over custody of their child, and no one likes regretting the cuttingly hurtful words they’ll inevitably throw at each other, none of which they actually mean but were rooted in repressed resentment.

Even so, saying Marriage Story is simply about divorce is a severe oversimplification. In fact, renaming Marriage Story as Divorce Story would entirely miss the point, because it uses divorce to examine how traditional marital roles clash with a world that’s quickly leaving them behind. While it’s never made clear who suggested the divorce, it’s very heavily implied to have been Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) because she’s sick of her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) controlling nearly every aspect of her life. They live in New York because Charlie prefers it for his work, even though she wants to live in Los Angeles. When she wants something, it’s a discussion for another time; when he wants something, it’s a certainty. She’s an actor in a play, and he’s her director. What happens when she wants to be the director?

To be clear, the film makes both parties completely sympathetic. The performances in this film are so nuanced, identifiable, and articulate that it’s impossible not to sympathize. When Nicole first opens up to Nora, her lawyer (played by a wonderful Laura Dern), about the issues with her marriage, she talks about it with such authenticity, in that it’s not an immediate listing of the problems. Instead, she deliberates, sometimes walking into other rooms to continue her small talk, interrupting her own story to comment on the tea and biscotti that were brought in as snacks. When she finally reaches a breaking point, it’s a tearful moment of self-actualization, and you fully understand just how repressed and frustrated she is. She desperately needs this divorce, and she needs help with it immediately.

Charlie, on the other hand, seems entirely oblivious to Nicole’s issues, or what’s really at stake with this divorce. This is his downfall in numerous ways, both in that it’s why the marriage failed in the first place, and in that he's barely able to keep up with the divorce proceedings. Nora allows Nicole to take advantage of all the legal loopholes, leaving him scrambling to find lawyers and the money to even afford everything. The saving grace of his character is that he’s shown to not be remotely malicious in his treatment of Nicole, but ignorant and lost. This allows the audience to feel a different kind of sympathy for him. With Nicole, you want her to gain her freedom from this oppressive life and obtain a better life for herself. With Charlie, you see the devastating impact the destruction of his previously perfectly-constructed world has on him. He’s now the actor, and she’s his director.

By making the film a dual character study instead of singular, Marriage Story avoids the pitfalls of being too biased, but it’s also not claiming to be an objective, all-encompassing depiction of divorce. Nicole and Charlie, while subtextual players in the battle between personal freedom and traditional marital roles, are too specifically characterized to be considered representations of every divorced couple. Nicole’s family all live in LA, and her mom has a weird habit of keeping in touch with her daughters’ ex-boyfriends. Charlie is an avant-garde theater director, coming from an abusive family in the Midwest to build his own career. Nicole is really good at playing with their son and opening pickle jars, while Charlie is really good at keeping things orderly and crying during movies. Nicole and Charlie come across as real people instead of allegories, which the film is all the better for.

At this point, it’s obvious that the script is fantastic, but the actual filmmaking also matches the writing’s quality. Director Noah Baumbach never utilizes any showy or bombastic shots that one can easily point to and say “that looks cool!” Instead, he aims to create a more naturalistic atmosphere, using subtle lighting, mundane sets and costumes, and a score that perfectly compliments each scene it’s used in. A good majority of the scenes that feature emotional monologues or arguments are shot almost seamlessly, as if it were all in one take, which greatly adds to the film’s sense of authenticity - it makes it seem like the conversations are actually organic instead of scripted, and shows off the acting abilities of Johansson and Driver better than nearly everything I’ve ever seen them in. I’m somewhat convinced that, while watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, I’ll wonder why Charlie is walking around cosplaying as Kylo Ren at one point.

Furthermore, while I did emphasize the more saddening aspects of Marriage Story, there is a great deal of surprising humor within it too. Like the arguments, the comedy is filmed and acted in such a way that it feels organic to the characters, and is especially hilarious whenever Nicole’s mother is on screen. Her comedic delivery is on point, and she perfectly captures the loving, playfully nagging qualities every mother should have. More comedic gems are Ray Liotta as an obnoxiously over-the-top divorce lawyer who’s so blatantly misogynistic it’s hard not to laugh, and Alan Alda, another divorce lawyer who’s clueless, has been through too many divorces himself, talks too much, and really needs to retire. In terms of major comedic moments, look out for pies, envelopes, and knives, strangely enough - for the latter, do expect some blood. It’s a bit morbidly funny.

Overall, if I haven’t made this clear enough, you have to see Marriage Story. I don’t know how you could make something better than this given the subject matter - it’s funny, well-filmed, well-acted, heartbreaking, bittersweet, personal, and poignant. This film really made me feel something by the end, and I hope it has that same effect on you.

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