Husbands and Wives and Blue Valentine. Kramer vs Kramer and Shoot the Moon. Films about divorce have a healthy tradition; it’s as if American directors marry for the sake of making a divorce movie. What sets Marriage Story apart is the punctiliousness with which it depicts how a couple channels its desires into making divorce work. If writer-director Noah Baumbach had been honest, he might’ve titled his film Divorce Story. Cineastes looking for an unacknowledged ancestor should remember the 1942 comedic masterpiece The Palm Beach Story: divorce would be so easy if husband and wife stopped complaining about each other and just separate already.
Baumbach and Preston Sturges have other things in common, too, such as an interest in the ways in which an elite, artistic or financial, justifies its bad behavior. When the film begins with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in voice-over reciting, at the urging of a mediator, the loving essays each has written about the other, Baumbach runs a montage of their adult lives from their meeting to the birth of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Randy Newman’s lachrymose score offers no counterpoint. These essays come off as concessions by a victorious party. Self-deception, the film persuasively argues, is an essential part of a healthy divorce, just as martyrdom is an inevitable consequence.
For over two hours, Baumbach shows the breakdown of a decade’s courtesies. Charlie, a Midwesterner by birth with an ascendant career in NYC as an avant-garde theater director, commits the first of several mistakes: letting Nicole claim residence in California, which means she can move Henry to her mother’s West Hollywood mansion. A former TV actress basking in a resplendent self-regard, Sandra has never hidden her crush on Charlie, giving the underused comic actress Julie Hagerty an opportunity to flaunt her skill at playing ninnies (Marriage Story is, like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, another 2019 film with the audacity to present mothers-in-law as independent actors with motivations of their own). Charlie meanwhile commutes from coast to coast, at first confident that he and Nicole can “work out” their differences without lawyers – one of many erroneous assumptions. Hired with the dough raised on a second mortgage, Nora Fanshaw plays a divorce attorney to the stars with the commitment of a Method actress. In a sparkling star turn, Laura Dern looks as if she would smile beautifully as she digs a red stiletto heel into your throat. Charlie, outgunned, hires the equally expensive Jay (Ray Liotta, so convincing in his performed swinishness that I thought I spotted him as a local attorney on an afternoon TV spot).
I should note that while Marriage Story‘s anodyne title suggests balance the bulk of the film concerns itself with Charlie’s travails. With a non-existent dress sense and his doleful mien, Driver plays Charlie as a Tortured Artist whose talent for, in Nicole’s words, casting a spell around those he works with cannot bear very much reality. How Driver manages to show rivulets of feeling beneath the cigar store Indian exterior remains one of the mysteries of his acting career. Johansson is given little to do but play Baumbach’s idea of Smart Mom, which is a pity. There’s a movie to be made about a young actress whom Jay accuses in court of having starred in, uh, tawdry productions who realizes herself artistically with the help of a husband she’ll leave; the movie needn’t be Annie Hall, either – Woody Allen as the director in whose shadow Baumbach has labored since Kicking and Screaming (1995). Although Baumbach doesn’t reduce Nicole to shrewish stereotypes, I wonder how the loss of Greta Gerwig as a co-writer diluted his interest in how female artists work out their independence from – or exploit! – a legal system as adamantine about role-playing as the theater.
To accuse a director in 2019 of excessive generosity about situational comedy is like complaining that late night comedians come down too hard on Donald J. Trump, but Marriage Story has sequences in which Baumbach likely had an actor in mind for a skit, and they almost all involve Charlie as subject or object; Nicole starts to fade. As amusing as Alan Alda is, for example, as a weary cut-this-crap lawyer charging far less than Jay — he exudes defeat like a sharp musk — the scenes go nowhere except to perhaps underscore how honesty in divorce proceedings will get you fewer visitation rights and cut into your savings. Nicole’s performance as a harried, put-upon mom for the sake of a judge may owe something to years of training under Charlie; she’ll play anything to get favorable rulings. It’s a subtle, corrosive irony, but Baumbach’s TV-indebted framing let the point ooze away.
Finally, audiences may grumble that Baumbach, to recall what Pauline Kael wrote about Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, may need to get a new set of friends. The Squid & the Whale covered much of the same ground; Marriage Story might serve as a prequel. Of course, Ozu, Rohmer, and Bergman limned their obsessions too. The difference with Baumbach is his use of cultural signifiers to pin down his characters instead of trusting the camera. His literary allusions are as perfectly placed as the topic sentences in a honor student’s paper. These are men and women who read Deborah Eisenberg. These men and women know the difference between the costumes Bowie wore during the Station to Station era and the Let’s Dance era; even Sandra is hip enough to join Nicole in Beatles drag for Halloween — Sergeant Pepper’s Beatles, of course (there’s room for George Martin). Even the much ballyhooed sequence in which Charlie sings Sondheim’s “Being Alive” to his actors at an after hours bar has an enough-already resonance: referents as weapons.
Shaggy, calculated to jerk tears as surely as an eighties Oscar favorite, Marriage Story exemplifies the tendency for artistic creations at their most generous to transform into monuments of self-satisfaction and unintended vacuum-packed silos. “Everything is like everything in a relationship,” we hear at one point. With Baumbach, every movie of his is like every movie he will ever make.