In the beginning scene of Marriage Story, the two leads talk about what they love the most about the other. Charlie talks about Nicole's drive, her small quirks, and she does likewise. They aren't swiping at each other, nor nitpicking. It’s a sweet snapshot into their two lives and why they spend it with each other. Then it cuts to therapy. The two are hostile. The two are quiet. The two are divorcing, and regardless of what they love about each other, nothing will change that. Nicole isn't that cheery actress, and Charlie isn't a bright eyed director. They are tired. They are human. And lest we forget, they are divorcing.
Marriage Story follows Nicole, an actress trying to get back into the business, and Charlie, an up and coming theatre director, going through the strenuous process of splitting up, the bulk of the movie asking themselves how they will manage to get their son through the other side unscathed. In my opinion, this movie was fine. I mean, it’s good. In fact, it’s really good. But it doesn’t fight to stay with the viewer. It just kind of trickles away with no real takeaway besides the concept of love as a whole. Like the two leads, the movie yells and fights and wears interesting outfits, but like the people we fight in real life who also wear cool clothes, it eventually fades into the background of others that look just like them. It also won’t shut up about the fact that ‘Hellooooo! This movie is about divoooooorce! Did you get that? They’re divorcing. They don’t get back together. They split up. They are divorcing!’ Shut up! I know! And this movie could have made that point in less than two and a half hours.
In those two and a half hours, the camera follows the characters like a play, swinging back and forth like a head peeking through to see what the two could possibly be arguing about. I can imagine it's a callback to the characters’ background. But, it’s at times like these (amongst many, many others) where it feels just a bit too on the nose, like it wants to be quirky and have a flair. However, it just comes off as not trusting the viewer to draw their own conclusions, or perhaps being too uppity to let them have their own conclusions. This is Baumbach’s vision after all, not ours. Another instance includes the scene where Charlie gets his divorce papers served to him. It feels like a play- characters are running in and outside the kitchen, the camera not once leaving it's perch. Even Nicole is orchestrating the people around her almost like she's a director getting ready for curtain, the dialogue zinging back and forth like a pinball game. It’s well done, but it’s also like, ‘Ugh. We know.’
Now before I talk about the two lead performances, I want to shed a light on the real star: Laura Dern. Laura Dern is Nora, and she isn’t a regular divorce lawyer, she's a cool divorce lawyer. She kicks off her heels to hug potential clients while wearing fun blazers and club dresses. She delivers iconic monologues about what it means to be a mother. She eats kale salads! I hope that Baumbach will take this opportunity to explore the MSU (Marriage Story Universe) by giving Nora the screen time she very much deserves.
Scarlett Johanson, I hate to say it, gave a noble performance. She deserved that Oscar nomination. There is a cadence to it, and you feel like you know these characters through Nicole. You've heard Nicole go on and on and on about Charlie, and even though they are almost divorced, it's still natural to hear her continue to do so. She's a bit annoying, but I don't think that's Scarlett's fault. This isn’t her script after all. While I still don’t like her character, I sympathize with her. Listening to Nicole talk about the relationship in the consultation scene is...something. I don't want to say powerful, but there is something compelling hearing her with an even tone about the demise of her marriage, with pulls of emotion and tears just pouring down her face, the cameras not once cutting away from her shaggy pixie.
Adam Driver is fine. He didn’t do anything bad, but he didn’t do anything great. He and his Adam Driver fist sized shaped hole in the wall were just there. Anybody can scream and yell to the point of tears, especially since he had been warming up for like, over an hour. I will say, Driver’s portrayal of Charlie took a character that was annoying and selfish with occasional streaks of love, and almost inverted it (or at least, made it seem so, which is still no easy feat).
There were so many weird scenes that were just off, some more than others. The fight scene. The knife scene. Whenever piano music started playing and a tall white person started singing (of which there were numerous). The divorce papers scene. Every possible moment where the possibility of a strong performance could be delivered, got slighted by weird direction, strange dialogue, and camera shots that just need a little push to the left. And sure, you could argue ‘oh, well that’s just life, life is awkward and never perfect!’ and like, okay, fine, maybe you’re right, but this is a story about two assholes divorcing; something’s gotta give.
I am contractually obliged to talk about the fight scene, and I will make a case for it even after seeing the abbreviated Twitter version of it. That wasn’t the full fight, and it did not do it justice. It started as a conversation after a nightmarish court scene, rising and escalating to the point of losing their respective cools. All jokes aside, there is solid acting in that scene (even though there is a bunch to make fun of). There is still tenderness and love there, and it's hard to watch. I guess I don’t really like this movie as a whole only because it feels like I'm watching someone else's real marriage fall apart. I don't want to watch it because it's not for me. I want this to work out, but I know it won't work. I don’t want that hope, and I don’t want to watch a story that I could easily find three of happening at once around me. It’d be different if it made a case for the characters, but to tell the truth, I don’t care about any of them.
Marriage Story is a good movie. But it’s not the best, especially in the wide world of campy divorce movies. Kramer V. Kramer will always hold that distinction. I really hope that I will see this movie as a midnight cult classic someday, with people bringing tiny squares of drywall to punch and pocket knives to slice ketchup packets with. Ooh. I can see it now. As much as I nitpicked and generally disliked this movie from a technical standpoint, I liked this movie in a weird way. Spoiler alert, they get divorced, and they stay divorced, but things are civil. Things are okay. The ending is hopeful, which while not all that realistic, is welcome. And I will hand that to Noah 'Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted' Baumbach (yeah, he wrote that movie in order to fund the divorce that inspired this movie instead of directing two off-Broadway plays). While the trailers and promotion tell us otherwise, this is a story of love. It's a love story in the sense that it’s really hard to truly hate someone. They are in love, but should we forget, they are divorced.
Image from Netflix via YouTube