Marriage Story is a surprisingly good movie for being a fairly common story. It has received six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). And it’s available in your living room, on Netflix, after a limited theater run that garnered less than half a million in box office sales. Go figure.
The film begins with Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johannsson) reciting the charming reasons they love each other. Their words are heard in voiceover as we watch endearing scenes of them doing the things that are described, set to delightful, lighthearted music. Charlie says, “What I love about Nicole: She makes people feel comfortable even about embarrassing things . . . She really listens when someone is talking . . . She cuts all our hair . . . She’s always brewing a cup of tea that she never drinks . . . It’s not easy for her to put away a sock or close a cabinet or do a dish, but she tries, for me . . . She is a mother who plays, joyfully.” Nicole says, “What I love about Charlie: He’s undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from doing what he wants to do . . . He’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order . . . He cries easily in movies . . . He’s very self-sufficient . . . He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do . . . He takes all of my moods steadily . . . He’s a great dresser.” As I was reviewing my notes I noticed that Charlie’s reasons for loving Nicole were all about Nicole, and Nicole’s reasons for loving Charlie were all about Nicole too.
Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package.
These tender but superficial affirmations of love appear to be some kind of modern marriage vows. But they’re not. They are assignments from their “separation mediator” (Robert Smigel). “In a divorce, things can get quite contentious,” he warns them. “I like to begin with a note of positivity . . . It helps to remember that this is a person you had great feeling for — and maybe still do in many ways.” That “still do” permeates the film. “Still do” is inherent in the “I do.” Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package. Marriage never really ends.
Charlie and Nicole clearly do love each other. We can see it in the intimate way Nicole continues to cut Charlie’s hair after their separation and the way she strives to protect his feelings, even as she serves him with divorce papers. We see it in the tender way Charlie looks at Nicole and in the stumbling way he tries to navigate this unexpected and unwanted end to their marriage.
So why the divorce? Nicole feels that her film career in Hollywood has been stymied by their focus on Charlie’s career as an avant-garde director in New York (even though she has starred in all his plays). She wants to reassert her individuality and her voice by accepting a role in a TV series that will take her back to California, where her family lives. Meanwhile, Charlie’s Medea is being transferred to Broadway — and Nicole has been playing Medea in previews, until now. The timing couldn’t be worse — for him, or for her. I appreciate the two-sidedness of this movie. Marriage requires commitment and compromise by both partners. So does a career. Sometimes it’s just too much.
For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.
Charlie and Nicole want to do this separation amicably, especially for the sake of Henry (Azhy Robertson), their adorable, playful, assertive young son. But once Nicole is persuaded to hire attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), all amicability is lost. So is all civility, as the attorneys compete to portray their client’s spouse as philandering, neglectful, and alcoholic. For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.
For Charlie and Nicole, however, it’s not about stuff; it’s about the quality and direction of their lives. Where will they live — in California, where Nicole has a film career, or in New York, where Charlie is trying to hang onto his career as a director? Both of their careers have suffered from the marriage, and now both are suffering from the strain of a bicoastal divorce. And by the time custody of Henry is settled, he’ll be grown. “We’re draining his education fund on this divorce,” Charlie reminds Nicole, as he pleads with her to eliminate the attorneys and go back to self-filing.
Anyone who has had to go to court, especially family court, will appreciate what Charlie experiences as he negotiates the intricacies and unfairness of California law. Nora is glamorously warm and sympathetic as she slips off her red-soled stilettoes to curl up beside Nicole and offer a comforting shoulder during their first meeting, and she’s even more glamorously vicious as she pulls off her jacket and tears into Charlie’s reputation in the courtroom. Dern is powerful in this role. She strides through each scene with confidence and charm and cutthroat shrewdness. So are Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, Alda as the laidback attorney Charlie first hires, one so detached that he simply shrugs when the advice he gives turns out to be completely wrong, and Liotta as the $950-an-hour shark Charlie hires when he realizes, after meeting Nora, “I’m going to need my own asshole.”
We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair.
Nicole believes she has lost ten years of her career in supporting Charlie, but Charlie feels loss too. “There’s so much I could have done! I was a director — in my twenties — who was suddenly on the cover of Time Out in New York! I was on my way! And I didn’t even want to get married. There’s so much I didn’t do!” In his anguish, Charlie is appalled to hear himself screaming, “I hate you!” into Nicole’s stricken face. “There are times that I dream you will die!” He dissolves into tears at this, and Nicole leans over him and caresses his shoulder. She understands. But she can’t give in. It’s an overpowering scene, full of hatred and love and white-hot passion, and acted with a rawness born of 50 exhausting, aching, emotional takes before Baumbach was finally ready to move on. The scene is so painful and so real it hits you in the gut. We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair. In Marriage Story it is one of those perfect cinematic moments. If you have ever fought with someone you love, it will tear you apart.
Is marriage bad for one’s career? Perhaps a better question would be, is a career bad for one’s marriage? In the end, which is more important? I don’t think it’s possible for a marriage to support two high-powered careers. Not successfully. Not for the long haul. Something has to give, and nowadays it’s usually the marriage. But divorce does not provide simple solutions, especially when children are involved.
But speaking of career competition: Baumbach’s partner is Greta Gerwig, an actress and director. She and her supporters have complained loudly about Hollywood’s snubbing of her in the director category for Little Women, blaming it on misogyny. But there is good reason Baumbach has been nominated for director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender. To understand, we need look no further than Laura Dern’s performances in the two movies. Both directors used her as their supporting actress, but Dern’s Marmee in Little Women is a mere caricature of the strong, gentle matriarch Alcott created in her book (see my review), while Dern’s Nina Fanshaw in Baumbach’s Marriage Story commands every scene. And Dern is winning award after award this season, for her performance in Baumbach’s movie, while Gerwig’s Florence Pugh, nominated for her supporting role as Amy in Little Women, is not.
There is good reason Baumbach has been Oscar-nominated for best director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender.
Moreover, the climactic scene in Little Women, where Jo proclaims “Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition and they've got talent as well as just beauty, and I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it! But . . . I am so lonely!” feels like a polished speech, not a personal epiphany. As for her sister Amy’s much-lauded scene with Meryl Streep, where she proclaims, “I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don't, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married” — this is just silly. Her sister Jo is already supporting the family as a writer of fiction! Moreover, Amy’s feminist complaint falls a bit flat in light of the fact that she is at that moment choosing between two wealthy suitors. I stand by my review of Little Women, despite its critical accolades.
Marriage Story is real, and raw, and tender, and devastating. It is helped along by Randy Newman’s superbly evocative soundtrack, and it contains not one but two perfectly selected and perfectly delivered songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It’s the finest piece of acting by Adam Driver to date — and that’s saying a lot for an actor who delivers emotionally in every piece he does (see my reviews of BlackKklansman and Silence for an example of his range). I don’t know which of the nine nominated films will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but Marriage Story certainly deserves to be in the running.