Marriage Story is one of my favorite films of the year. Allow me to explain why.
On a recent episode of The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast, co-host Amanda Dobbins memorably declared that no offense, she simply does not care about any non-married person’s opinion of Marriage Story. Have at her on Twitter on if you must but as both a child of divorce and a relatively recently married woman she felt Marriage Story quite deeply, so much so that she wasn’t interested in reading takes from people who couldn’t relate to the film on the same level. She doesn’t want to hear analytical film critic talk; she wants to hear about conversations authors had with their spouses after seeing the film the same way she talked with her husband after seeing it. She wants to know how Marriage Story impacted you personally.
I…can’t do that, at least not the same way she can. I’m not married. Marriage Story almost made me wish I was, though. That’s an odd thing to say since, despite the title, this is a film about the end of a marriage – an ugly, hate-filled time where initial pleasantries and hopes for civility gives way to verbal warfare in divorce court. However, as a certain Sondheim number goes, sung here in a moment of emotional catharsis, “Somebody to pull me up short, put me through hell, give me support for being alive.”
That’s what the couple at the heart of the film loses in their divorce, and Marriage Story beautifully captures the mundane tragedy – but also hopeful beauty – of that. It’s enough to make you feel as alone as Adam Driver’s newly single father living in his sadly sparse bachelor pad but optimistic about your chances to turn things around.
But that’s enough oversharing for one review.
The Noah Baumbach factor
Perhaps, however, it’s perfectly appropriate that I’d begin at such a soul-baring moment. After all, that’s what Marriage Story writer-director Noah Baumbach has been doing his entire career, crafting one autobiographical film after another, most of them insular examinations of East Coast artists since that’s what he knows:
He debuted with 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, a film about new college graduates who struggle to move on because Baumbach was himself a 25-year-old recent-graduate struggling to move on. He broke through with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, a film about two Brooklyn-based writers divorcing much to the chagrin of their teenager kids because Baumbach grew up in Brooklyn, his parents were writers, and when they divorced it destroyed his world. His first Netflix project was 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, a profile of a liberal Brooklyn family dealing with a parent’s illness because Baumbach had just gone through that process with his own parents.
You can’t always do such one-to-one comparisons with Baumbach’s work. Sometimes his films, like 2007’s Frances Ha, are about his friends, not him, and he bristles when interviewers compare his work to diary entries. Marriage Story, he’s been quick to point out, is not a glorified version of his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Instead, he went through an ugly divorce in 2011 which naturally brought about its own self-reflection. He also spent years interviewing his own friends and acquaintances – some divorced, others still married – about their own experiences, regrets, fears, and thoughts on relationships. Occasionally, the people would tell him they didn’t want anything from their life to end up in the film; most of the time, everything was fair game.
The actual film
From all of that, Baumbach created the Barber family – Charlie (Driver), Nicole (Scarlet Johansson), and Henry (Azhy Robertson), an elitist stage director, his actress-wife, and their young son. Charlie and Nicole are a couple teetering toward divorce and completely unprepared for all that entails.
When we meet them, they are in couples therapy reading letters they wrote about everything they love about each other. It’s a therapeutic tool used here as a framing device. The letters are presented as voiceover montages scored to a lovely Randy Newman score, and in the letters, Charlie and Nicole speak so lovingly of each other that we are meant to be shocked when the montage ends and we learn this is actually a couple on its last leg. All the warning signs are there, though.
Mixed in with their tributes to why they fell in love are laundry lists of why they fell out of love, mostly all of the little annoying habits that added up over time. You can sense them focusing on those more than the positive because that’s what you do when a relationship is falling apart, “Yeah, he was really good at this, but then there are all those other things I just had to look past.”
When the montages stop and we learn they are actually sitting in a marriage counselor’s office, it’s jarring but maybe a tad expected. After all, isn’t this the movie about divorce? Even though we’ve already been let in on what she wrote, Nicole refuses to read her letter aloud to Charlie. Instead, she storms out of the room. The relationship is clearly over. All that’s left is to separate amicably for the good of their son, but if that’s exactly what happened then there’d be no movie.
What proceeds from there is almost a legal procedural, a methodical walk through the divorce process, right down to shopping for lawyers and looking for a new place to live. The film routinely hops across the country to chronicle Charlie’s part of the story in New York and Nicole’s half in her newly relocated home of Los Angeles where she’s scored a TV show and a whole slew of new career opportunities. We see in this rather ordinary process just how easily divorce lawyers (played here by Laure Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray “Chantix” Liotta) turn into mouthpieces for petty grievances and how a desire to do what’s right and best morphs into blinding anger and an overwhelming need to win.
The Kramer vs. Kramer of it all
What gets lost in the process is Henry, a bit of a nothing character who mostly wants whatever’s easiest and most enjoyable regardless of how hard that is on Charlie, but’s that entirely the point of the story. The divorce turns into a bit of a custody battle, one Charlie fights tooth and nail often in complete denial over what his son really wants.
The Kramer vs. Kramer – the iconic film about divorce that also never loses its focus on the family – comparisons are inevitable, but the better comp is actually The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach already made his movie about divorce from the kid’s point of view. He spent the next decade making movies about adults who came from divorced households. Marriage Story is finally his movie directly about divorce from the parent’s point of view.
A gut-wrenching feel-good movie about divorce
You might think Baumbach would be bitter about that, regretful that he grew up and turned into his own parents, an insult, btw, Charlie tosses at Nicole as a slap to the face. Surprisingly, though, Baumbach treats Charlie and Nicole’s divorce as an excruciating experience that is ultimately a gateway to something better. It’s the fire the characters have to walk through to become their better selves; it’s just hard to see that while they’re going through it. Mostly, they just want to kill each other.
That’s exactly why, spoiler, Marriage Story’s climax is ultimately an all-time break-up argument, an epic string of insults from characters who have been pretending to be nice for far too long and supplementing their rage through divorce lawyers. It’s the scene that’s probably going to get Adam Driver his Oscar, particularly the look on his face when Charlie realizes he has gone too far. However, earlier in the film when Laura Dern’s divorce lawyer tells Nicole that what’s she doing “is an act of hope” she’s not just feeding her a line. Nicole’s view on the divorce – and, by extension, the entire film’s view – is that it is an escape hatch, a way to free yourself from a prison you’ve stayed in for fear of what happens next. It’s incredibly optimistic about it, really.
Baumbach and his supremely talented cast treat this with a rather knowing grace. Marriage Story feels incredibly well-informed by life experiences, a group of people who know the material well and brought a lot of themselves to the work. The result is career-best effort all around and the most hopeful of any Baumbach movie I’ve ever seen, despite how much it breaks your heart along the way.
It’s not hard to see why Baumbach has arrived at that place, emotionally. After all, he’s with Greta Gerwig now. They have a child together. By all accounts, they are the power couple of the indie scene, scoring cover stories in The Hollywood Reporter. His ex, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he shares a child, has a Netflix series (Atypical) and an Oscar nomination (for Hateful Eight) under her belt, both of which came long after their divorce. Things worked out for the best, it would seem.
What does Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Marriage Story movie look like, I wonder. We’ll probably never know. Maybe, like Nicole at the start of this film, she doesn’t want to read her letter to the crowd. In her version, maybe Marriage Story’s eventual infidelity plot point wouldn’t have been treated in quite the same matter-of-fact way. Maybe her letter would start with how annoyed she is with Baumbach always using their relationship for his art. (Or maybe, as happens to Charlie and Nicole, the passage of time allows the love to outweigh the hate.) When that art is as compelling as Marriage Story, though, it’s hard to complain.
What’s your take on Marriage Story? Let me know in the comments.