Film of the Week: Marriage Story
All images from Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)
In one of the many elegant details that fill Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, there’s a framed magazine article hanging on a wall, a feature profiling couple Nicole and Charlie. Some astute sub-editor titled the piece “Scenes From a Marriage” because the Barbers are not just married, but also theatrical collaborators; the editor also clearly had Ingmar Bergman in mind, and so does Baumbach. That Marriage Story is brisk, witty and revels in a mischievous sense of fun does not mean that it isn’t also Bergmanesque—that it isn’t, in its way, as harrowing in its view of spousal difference as any sombre huis clos psychodrama by the sage of Stockholm.
The film’s opening is nothing if not breezy. In voice-over, each partner in turn gives a warm, appreciative résumé of the other’s personality. “What I love about Nicole,” muses Charlie (Adam Driver), “is that she really listens when somebody is talking.” He loves her habit of leaving undrunk cups of tea around the apartment, the way she plays wholeheartedly with their 8-year-old son Henry, the great presents she gives, and of course, over images of Nicole in a modishly art stage production of Elektra, “she’s my favourite actress.” Then it’s the turn of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) to enthuse about Charlie’s style of eating sandwiches, the fact that he can darn socks, the way that he loves being a dad and even enjoys dealing with tantrums. Oh yes, and he cries easily in movies.
Well, he’s not the only one. This brief double montage of each spouse rejoicing in the other, and in their adorable son (Azhy Robertson), is an advert for smug hipster happiness, especially with Randy Newman’s knowingly perky orchestral score hitting those buoyant all- Aaron Copland cadences. Then comes the twist: the Barbers have prepared these memories as written statements for sessions of mediation before they separate. And Nicole testily refuses to read hers out aloud. Joy turns to ashes in seconds.
Marriage Story isn’t a tale of despair. Yes, you’ll watch the credits roll with a lump in your throat, but the end brings a sense of acceptance and of love moving on. In between, though, the picture is a singularly bleak one, spiked with notes of hard-won, worldly cynicism; this tragicomedy is all the more painful because it’s so brisk and witty, and because there’s so much energy and color in the performances, so much joie de vivre slugging it out with angst.
The back story that partly emerges in that opening sequence is that Nicole was an upcoming Los Angeles actress famed for a faintly salty teen romcom role, and Charlie was a high-minded, upcoming, somewhat avant-garde New York theatre director. They met, fell in love, had a son and have been enjoying several years of success with their company, Exit Ghost (a nod both to Shakespeare and to Philip Roth—and indeed, it’s as a sheeted ghost that Charlie eventually makes his exit, in the glummest, most basic Halloween costume imaginable, literally a sad sack).
Now, however, Nicole feels aggrieved at years of neglect of her needs (“He truly didn’t see me”), and their differences seem irreconcilable. She’s heading back to LA with Henry, to appear in a TV science-fiction series; Charlie will stay in New York, fly over to see his son as much as possible. Eventually, Charlie thinks, they’ll work things out and will all be together again on the East Coast. Nicole has other ideas, though, and consults an L.A. attorney, Norah—Laura Dern, scissor-thin in red spike heels, playing it warm and huggy, but as lethally sharp as the edge of a freshly-printed writ. There follows a fabulous scene at the house of Nicole’s wonderfully neurotic, fluttery actress mother (Julie Hagerty), in which Charlie enters all unknowing, while Nicole’s sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) stands awkwardly poised to serve him with an envelope containing divorce papers: it’s a magnificent set piece, at once absurd and balletic with a dash of Feydeau farce that’s all the funnier because we know the lead weight that’s about to drop into Charlie’s lap.
As Charlie realizes that things won’t be as simple as he thinks, emotionally or legally, Nicole starts to explore her new life, making out with her show’s “flirty grip” (there’s one on every show, apparently), and reviewing her situation. She unburdens herself to Norah in an extraordinary long-take scene that plays out leisurely, taking all the time it needs to: Baumbach gives his scenes and his cast the space they need, and the actors respond marvelously. This may be the single best scene Johansson has acted, unless it’s the one at Charlie’s flat where an amicable moment between them builds inexorably into a storm of raging recriminations. Either way, the nervy inflections that Johansson may have first picked up in her movies with Woody Allen take on a new electrical charge here, and she throws body and soul into her role; as theater folks say, it’s a very honest, brave performance, and you can imagine it was emotionally and physically exhausting.
Driver plays it cooler, even in the scenes that build up to Charlie losing it spectacularly. Charlie can rage and weep too, but for the most part, he has a laconic, weary detachment from even the worst of life—this is a character, after all, who can give his wife a set of performance notes after the very last show they do together. The sheer laconic glumness of Charlie—weary from emotional turmoil and shuttling between coasts—pays off in a lovely moment, as he interrupts an endless comic anecdote told by his attorney with the dry comment, “I’m sorry—am I paying for this joke?”
The attorneys are the most dreadful part of this nightmarish panorama, hilarious in a way that makes you want to curl up and die. Dern’s Norah dispenses tea and sympathy (with manuka honey) but adds vindictive twists to her treatment of the opposition, for the sheer pleasure of it. Charlie arms himself by consulting Jay (Ray Liotta, with an angry face that looks set to explode at any moment), a snarling bulldog with a smooth, marginally less expensive Mini-Me sitting in the corner of his office. Alarmed by the prospect of bloodshed, Charlie opts instead for Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), an avuncular, philosophical veteran who’s gazed into the abyss too many times to kid Charlie that there are happy landings in store. He baffles his client with his constant invocations of “the court,” a hypothetical entity that Charlie probably won’t ever have to deal with, but should do his best to please, just in case. Nicole and Charlie are lovely people, of course, who still care for each; neither wants things to be harsh, but the Californian divorce laws being what they are, things will get gladiatorial—again, this is where Baumbach’s meticulous sense of detail comes into play, everything from a glass of red wine to a child’s car seat being ruthlessly weaponized.
The film spoils us with a whole set of superb comic performances, including a magnificent pain-in-the-ass turn from the turtle-like Wallace Shawn as an indefatigably self-aggrandising thespian, and an extraordinary showcase scene from Martha Kelly as the evaluator appointed to assess Henry’s family environment: a hilariously desperate sequence in which she sits in Charlie’s apartment, a pallid-voiced cloud of anxious disapproval hovering stiffly in the corner. Some of the things that will really get to you are on a gentle, intimate level: a tear on Nicole’s face during a bedtime story, a wobble of Charlie’s chin when Henry reads something to him, the separated couple closing a heavy sliding door together, one on each side. There are broader touches too—not one but two Halloweens, each in a slightly different mode of painful awkwardness, and two songs from Steven Sondheim’s Company. One is a bouncy “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Nicole, her mom and her sister, the other Charlie’s desolate solo of “Being Alive”: “Someone to hold me too close/ Someone to hurt me too deep.” You probably knew on some level that an Adam Driver performance could drive you to tears, but here’s the proof. You probably never knew that a Noah Baumbach film could do that too—we’re talking about the maker of the tart, urbane likes of While We’re Young and Mistress America—but it can, even while you’re holding your sides, and here’s the proof of that too.