Guest review by Connor Lightbody (@Calbody)
Noah Baumbach’s delicate and emotionally fraught film, Marriage Story, is a timeless foray into what marriage takes. When it exists is of unimportance to Baumbach, floating between modernity and history as he ensures that this story, a woefully saddening and uplifting tale of divorce and the couple’s soul-sucking lawyers, happens without the need for a chronology. Baumbach desires this story to exist in a time vacuum, that this story will relate to every facet of his audience, that the audience’s attention is focused on the characters, on the minutia of the story rather than the flamboyance of setting.
Opening with a quirky, but a retrospectively desolate monologue, we dive straight into Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) sharing their partner’s finest qualities. It’s a cute, passionate retelling of their marriages best moments until a cut to their divorce proceedings grounds the film. It tilts the perspective of expectation the audience entertains, crash landing from an ethereally hazy, idyllic family to the harsh reality of a divorce. We learn quickly and effectively the extent that this husband and wife love each other, regardless of their rivalling ideas on what will make them happy. These two people are two sides of the same coin, as the opposite-sides-attract mantra comes to fruition. It’s within how different they are that makes them an effective parenting duo.
What Baumbach wants to say with this dichotomy though, is that we are our own failures. That we are the perpetrators of our own destiny, that this marriage could have succeeded without their hubris, their stubbornness, and their inability to break down those communicative barriers. The barriers between two people thriving for the same internal goal of life satisfaction. Nicole’s fluctuating stardom in the face of Charlie’s success, Johansson carefully avoiding the low hanging fruit of jealousy. Instead, she’s refreshingly supportive. And all throughout the entirety of Marriage Story, they never deviate from being undyingly supportive of each other’s achievements, which translates into a much stronger and richer emotional attachment to the duo at the heart of this story.
However, Nicole’s lawyer Nora, and Charlie’s lawyer Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) don’t play by Charlie and Nicole’s set of rules. They’re out for what they see as their clients best interests, and it’s with their toxic influence, control over the divorce proceedings is lost. The conflicts snowball, forcing Charlie into situations he never intended, and putting their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), in the firing line. It’s at these moments when the tone gracefully pivots from hearty familial comedic beats to a sense of melancholic dread in what will befall Henry. It’s a testament to how wonderful Baumbach’s direction is, with just how successful he can play a scene that is comedic on the surface, but bubbling beneath is the greater ramifications of what the scene means.
It’s within the smaller moments that truly showcases Marriage Story’s power, in capturing an authenticism with a highly skilled panache for communicating the character’s emotional struggle throughout these divorce proceedings. Cutting to a Charlie eye twitch, to a moment flashing rapidly between him and Nicole with their sleeping child stuck between them, a conservatively shot scene framing a desperate, aggrieved Nicole as diminutive in relation to her looming lawyer Nora (Laura Dern). It all communicates with a feathered nuance as it’s script is so smartly refined and elegant that each moment washes over you with this constantly curious cathartics.
At any given juncture within Marriage Story, your standing on each element that’s revealed of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage and divorce swings the pendulum of blame until the audience’s moral compass is battered and bruised. Baumbach is immovably resolute on keeping the status quo. Removing the conflict of blame allow both of their failings to be blamed, while showing that their foibles, the ones they blame on the other were actually the reason they worked as a perfect creative and parenting team.
By the end, the journey is almost a spiritual one. A rollercoaster of emotional pain each character has felt is imprinted on the audience. Charlie and Nicole’s arcs close with their pride finally set aside but it’s all too late. And that final shot lingers on an earlier parallel to give closure for the two lovers, stripped away from the potential lives they wanted to live. Baumbach catches the finale perfectly, at that fragile point between soul-crushing and a transcendent purging of one’s emotions. A perfect congruence of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy, that will leave you breathless.