Marriage Story (2019)

Dir. Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson

This came out yesterday, so I guess spoilers, but also if you’re worried about spoilers don’t go on Twitter either.

Until the fight, I felt like Marriage Story worked. The fight is not a bad scene, especially if one was waiting for an earthshaking screaming match to unfold, and it was exciting for me to hear Adam Driver do some I’ve never witnessed from him before. He squeaks in a humiliating tearful squeal I don’t think we’ll ever get to hear out of him again, mostly because there are so few opportunities for men in the movies to be that weak and unhinged. The argument is shot in a series of increasingly closer close-ups in one short sequence, or sometimes we just see Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) in isolation. I wish it were a more successful premise, because the idea that these two are standing on a stage and shouting at nothing basically to hear themselves do it is compelling. But the movie is less interesting when this is about two people working their way out of their very divorced cocoons too early, and it’s more interesting when the two of them have to face up to each other. (The movie knows this as well, I think; doesn’t it wind down with Charlie finally getting to read Nicole’s list of good things about him with her standing in the doorway? He sees her thoughts without seeing her; she watches him see her. It is a moment of togetherness apart, and they do recognize each other then, and although it’s stagy it works.) Nor do I think the movie believes that they are standing in isolation, because if they really couldn’t hear each other, they would not have grown increasingly strident and barbed as they explode shrapnel into each other. You decided you were unhappy in New York once you got to Los Angeles, Charlie says; how would you know, Nicole replies, because you could never see me because of all the time you spent seeing only yourself. He punches a hole in the wall, he screams that he wishes she were dead. All this is vicious, but we know that Baumbach can do vicious. We’ve seen The Squid and the Whale. Whether or not this scene, the linchpin of Marriage Story, can be more than that—moving, affecting, meaningful, cathartic, whatever word you want to choose—boy howdy, I am dubious about that. The fight is a loud misfire, but a misfire all the same, one that wants us to know how aflame these people are with resentment more than it wants us to feel something about it.

There are two repeated allusions in Marriage Story that make me worry that Noah Baumbach may, in fact, be incapable of getting us to feel something more than that resentment or vexation, may not be able to move us to anger or pain or devastation. He goes back to Ingmar Bergman, and he goes back to Stephen Sondheim. I pause to admit here that there is probably no other two-headed combination of allusions that Baumbach could go to that would raise my hackles like this one: my favorite cinematic figure and my favorite theatrical figure. This also gets me going because, as I watch more and more stuff, that if you’re going to adapt or allude to someone who’s better than you, you need to be able to function at their level to make sure it’s worth our time. Baumbach is not Bergman, even if he’s recreating a shot here and there. (For heaven’s sake Baumbach even has a stuffed animal in the same spot on the bed.) There’s a little insert of a story in the New York Times about Charlie and Nicole they’ve got hanging up, one that’s titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a title which I can’t believe we aren’t supposed to connect; when they have that knockdown fight, they do it in Charlie’s bare-walled apartment, a setting as bare and bland as the office in “The Illiterates” where Johan and Marianne had their own, much more literal knockdown fight. Baumbach invites the comparison, but for a number of reasons it is not flattering to his picture. Bergman put his climactic fight much later in the movie (and I’m talking about the 280 minute TV production here, not the theatrical release), which gives him the advantage of emotional buildup and tension. Bergman places the argument in a much starker, uglier setting, one which mirrors the poison in that marriage. On balance I would rather have Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann than Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. And most of all, the struggle between Johan and Marianne in “The Illiterates” is one which invites us to observe them acting in concert and to feel what both are putting out, rather than them acting individually and asking us to witness some big performance. This is a mistake in conception, but it’s not grievous so much as it is a little annoying.

The one that is a profound mistake is the sudden reliance on Sondheim’s wonderful musical, Company, in the late stages. There’s a little performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” that Nicole, her mom (Julie Hagerty), and her sister (Merritt Wever) do at a party. (Hagerty and Wever are ludicrously funny in this movie, Wever especially. Cassie is tasked with serving Charlie, and the job is a little too much for her. At one point he asks if she’s made a pie she’s holding: “I don’t know!” she replies, shifting her weight like a toddler who has to pee but hasn’t figured it out yet. Baumbach the comedian is still in evidence, at least.) It’s the sort of cutesy thing that one can imagine a families of performers doing, a very knowing Lawrence Welk-style bit. It’s also about how the women dating the protagonist of the show wonder how he can be such a disappointing partner so often while still being very desirable. This allusion works in isolation, because it is a not a particularly high-stakes bit. It’s a good statement of where Nicole is with Charlie in the final straight before the signatures, no longer mad, precisely, but still displeased. It only feels obnoxious later, after “Being Alive.” The “Being Alive” karaoke that Charlie does a little later is a truly bad choice on Baumbach’s part. It is one of the most moving songs to be put onstage since Show Boat. It is the story of a man who is shocked into realizing that everything he thought about a relationship is wrong. Bobby transitions from rejecting “someone” to wanting “somebody” in that song in a display of verbal elegance that most writers cannot achieve. Driver does what he can with it. He’s funny when he says the lines of the other characters in the play, which is silly and also pretentious, and the rendition is good enough and bare enough, influenced much more by Dean Jones than, say, Raul Esparza, that it’s not distracting. (Throwing shade in the direction of Stone, Emma.) But this is a copout. I’ve never seen a copout like this in a movie before, never seen a director so baldly throw up his hands and say, “Well, maybe I’ll just completely sign over this moment where my character realizes something about himself to someone else’s work.” Say what you will about the end of Cinema Paradiso, which does something a little similar, but that’s a movie which at least has given us some reason to look for the kisses to show up again, to be deployed to enormous effect. Where in Marriage Story was Sondheim before “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” dropped in two hours in, and why is it better to give over Charlie’s realization to a song that is already loaded with decades of meaning on its own?

Marriage Story, to put this another way, is not a great movie about feelings. It is a very successful legal drama, so much so that I think its best moment in performance and in writing is in a line reading Adam Driver has while he’s talking to Alan Alda. Alda is playing Bert, a former showbiz lawyer who has gone into family law, and who Charlie has hired on the cheap. Bert approaches Charlie’s case with a good-humored approach to the whole affair, although his approach is largely that the whole thing is predestined to end with Nicole winning out. Everything, as far as he can tell, will bend to her side; the geographical pull of Los Angeles is obliterating any chance that Charlie has at arguing that his family is a “New York family.” Bert calls for a sidebar with Charlie after Nicole’s lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern) lands a particularly nice punch. He starts telling a joke the way Joe Biden would tell a joke, and after thirty seconds of scowling and staring at the clock, Charlie interjects. His face looks sick, and his voice is thin with self-deprecation. He is being levitable, but also definitely wants to stop this story in his tracks, which, doubtless, is the way Joe Biden’s campaign staff feels most days. Am I being billed for this joke, Bert? he asks, and Bert’s face falls, offended mostly but also we can see the sadness, the sureness in his face that he is not doing a good enough job. It is terribly funny, and so awkward, and after this particular misadventure Charlie returns to the battlefield with a much more aggressive lawyer, Jay (Ray Liotta). Nora and Jay are about as close as we’ve come to Paul Biegler and Claude Dancer in six decades, skirting right up against, and then boldly through, what decent people would imagine bringing out. Family law, as we understand it from this movie, is a game of one-upmanship, being able to wield any misstep (in Nicole’s case, a boozy literal one) against someone in court. Charlie and Nicole are swept along by the law, losing control over their divorce out of fear that opposing counsel will obliterate them. Dern’s performance is particularly strong, aided in part by camera angles and heels that make her look like she’s Baron Davis’ height. (Alas that in all the references to Company there was no room for “She’s tall enough to be your mother! Goliath!” in reference to her.) There is a great deal of performance in her effortlessness, and maybe some of the LA shallow daffiness is overdone, but it is not hard to understand why Nicole is so taken with her when they first meet. Competence, control. Marriage Story has enough empathy that when one is so overcome with confusion and mistrust, a person seeks out someone who will tell them what to do, even if they may not have been the right somebody.

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