starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda
written and directed by Noah Baumbach
by Walter Chaw Another of Noah Baumbach's careful deconstructions of familial relationships, Marriage Story is maybe the best movie of its kind since John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman were traversing the same ground. It's a horror film about what happens when a couple decides to divorce and "lawyer up" to protect their interests. At about the midpoint, a kindly attorney, Bert (Alan Alda), muses out loud, and pleasantly, that it doesn't really make sense to bankrupt college funds in the pursuit of what's best for the children of divorce. It's one of dozens of piquant moments in a piece that makes clear it isn't taking sides. Or if it is, it's on the side of a lull in aggressions. In war, after all, there are no winners among the combatants--just casualties, fatalities, and other victims of traumatic misadventure.
The machinations of divorce play out in the background of the liebestraum of Nicole and Charlie's marriage. Nicole is hurt that Charlie doesn't want to spend more time in L.A. and seems focused entirely on his own career (plus, he may have fucked his stage manager), while Charlie thinks Nicole has bad taste and has used him to develop a reputation as a serious actress. They still love each other, though, even as they start to hate each other. Charlie wins a MacArthur Grant, and although Nicole is thrilled for him, she sees the envelope with his summons sitting on the counter over his shoulder as they celebrate. Later, after Henry goes to bed, she asks where he'll be staying that night, and he doesn't quite know how to answer because it didn't occur to him that he wasn't sleeping over, with her and his mother-in-law (Julie Hagerty). It's all incredibly painful, incredibly true, bolstered by performances by Driver and Johansson that nail every moment without histrionics. There's not one single false note between them. Johansson continues to make a case for being the best actress of her generation. The risks she takes, the roles she chooses, and the lengths she goes to play against her looks remind of Paul Newman, of all people. And Driver...yeah, I've never seen Driver give a bad performance.
What Marriage Story does is provide a definitive look at how two decent people, two professionals and artists who care about one another and their child but are at different places in their lives after travelling a while together, navigate separation. It's a challenge of the notion of fairness and whether our convoluted legal system is designed to do anything but change decent people into animals chasing money, righting wrongs real and imagined, settling scores, and waking only now and again from their fugue of grief and recrimination to remember they were golden once. It's a film about the worst kinds of realities that has room in its heart for hope. Better than all that, Marriage Story respects not only its cast enough to give them room to fully inhabit a person and that person's space, but also its audience enough to resist easy manipulations and the instinct to want to switch sides. If you find yourself empathizing with one of these people over the other, in fact, it's a lovely opportunity for you to test your biases.
Charlie and Nicole have both made terrible mistakes. They have risked love and disappointment, art and failure. Baumbach has Nicole and Charlie each perform a number from Sondheim's Company, a musical about relationships and a bachelor, Robert, caught in the middle of a swirl of circumstance and friends who mean well but seek to change him. The song Nicole sings, accompanied by her mom and sister (Merritt Wever), is "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"--a jibe against Robert not wanting to settle down from the three women he's fooling around with at the same time. (Sondheim scholars could identify each woman with her counterpart in his musical--Freudians should take note, too, of this transposition of lovers to this incestual trinity.) Charlie, meanwhile, sings "Being Alive," which sees Robert growing from the opening number ("Company") into what looks to his concerned friends like an acknowledgment of his hopes for connection and fears of being alone. (A final coda of Robert by himself on the stage suggests that what he actually wishes remains only his to know.) The play mirrors one of the things on Nicole's list in the opening scenes--how this man can create a family from the groups of people he adopts in the course of his creation. It's the same type of exploration as Marriage Story. (Nicole and Charlie even seem loosely based on Sondheim's seemingly-perfect married pair of Susan and Peter, who surprise our hero with news of their impending divorce.) Marriage Story is its own avant-garde production, however, and it is wonderful. Humane and lyrical, it's a lovely, patient piece content to observe and reserve judgment, and in so doing locate the beauty and grace in imperfect people involved in making just a few perfect moments together, whatever the storms raging around them.