Marriage Story both is and is not about marriage. On the one hand, it’s a formalist examination of the larger institution and the various social commitments people make to one another, both the legal stuff in writing and the not-so-legal stuff in everyday habits and expectations. On the other hand, Marriage Story is really about the dissolution of one particular marriage, the separation and divorce of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver). The ostensibly successful couple are involved members of the drama community in New York. In both their theater company and their marriage, Charlie is the director and Nicole is the actor—he orchestrates and controls and expects, while she performs and emotes and imagines. When she’s offered a TV pilot opportunity in Los Angeles, she embarks on an alternative life for herself and their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) in her childhood home of California with the support of her mom, Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver). While Charlie expects the separation to be temporary—after all, they are a “New York family”—Nicole’s decision to involve a lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), and serve Charlie divorce papers propels the pair into the dysfunctional system of divorce proceedings.
In the opening scene, Charlie and Nicole narrate lengthy letters they’ve composed detailing what they love and appreciate about the other, featuring a montage of scenes of seemingly happier times in their relationship. This is about the only “happy” moment of this comedy-drama; there’s far more drama, not so much comedy. The remainder of Marriage Story is grueling, like the heart-wrenching third-act argument in Before Midnight between Celine and Jesse stretched out for 2+ hours. Nicole and Charlie scream and cry and stammer and glare as their lawyers drain them dry of their financial resources and emotional stamina, with Johansson and Driver giving some of the stronger performances in their already-exemplary careers. Both characters have good reasons for divorce, as well as personal flaws: Nicole’s reactionary choice to involve lawyers goes against both of their original expectations, and she is the one to initiate the divorce. Charlie’s one instance of infidelity and an obsession with living in New York for his job is troubling, even as the film often seems to show him in a more sympathetic light (perhaps informed by writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own divorce experience with Jennifer Jason Leigh). Indeed, much has been made about “taking sides” between Nicole and Charlie, but I think the real antagonists here are the lawyers, as well as a misguided understanding of what “marriage” actually means in our contemporary society. Is marriage a contract or covenant, a transaction or a sacrament, a foundational institution for society or an outdated tradition which needs to be reformed? Marriage Story provokes a discussion but doesn’t offer many clear answers here, apart from the reality that ending a marriage is quite messy and often painful for every party involved…except the lawyers. The three attorneys here—the seductive and vindictive Nora, the kindly yet bumbling Bert (Alan Alda), and the brash asshole Jay (Ray Liotta)—all more or less manipulate Nicole and Charlie like pieces in a giant competitive game of Monopoly, trying to win as much as possible regardless of the couple’s true feelings.
In a late scene, Nora performs a rousing diatribe before Nicole about the contemporary perception of women and parenthood: “Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago” she argues, saying that we collectively forgive absentee and silent fathers while still expecting perfection from mothers. “The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, Mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth … And the dad isn’t there. He didn’t even do the f*cking! God is in heaven. God is the father, and God didn’t show up.” It’s a difficult speech to hear, but it contains some biting truth behind it. In our present-day Western culture (Christian and otherwise), our views on gender, sexuality, and marriage are often quite inconsistent, inequitable, and/or incoherent. We have all sorts of tacit beliefs and practices about what makes for a good marriage, and thus what makes for good reasons for a divorce, many which are more confusing and complex than helpful or healthy. Marriage Story brings these perceptions and beliefs out into the open and asks us to consider them, ugliness and all. And though it does get ugly, it’s also paradoxically beautiful in its raw sincerity. Apart from Before Midnight, a second comparable film I thought of was Private Life, another recent Netflix film about a couple navigating a deeply painful experience which thousands, if not millions, of real-life couples have also navigated for themselves. What Private Life is to infertility, Marriage Story is to divorce. They invite us to talk about these things more publicly and empathetically.
Every performance in Marriage Story is just about perfect, with Driver in particular given the best scenes and most to work with. He has two Big Emotional Moments which are certain to elicit tears and Oscar nominations, one involving a lengthy spontaneous karaoke of a Sondheim number and another featuring him putting a fist into his apartment wall and blubbering with tears. Yet despite all this artistic and philosophical merit, Marriage Story isn’t a film I would want to revisit any time soon. I’m in a happy marriage—we watched Marriage Story on the couch and talked about it for an hour afterwards—but as an adult child of divorce, and having seen so many marriages disintegrate within my network of friends, family, and church congregations where I’ve served as a pastor, it was agonizing to see such personal pain depicted on-screen, even in this formalistic and sometimes distancing manner. I can’t exactly relate to upper-class LA/NY arts/entertainment industry types who win MacArthur Grants or earn Emmy nominations, but I can relate to the all-too-human experience of the wake of broken relationships. My own story with divorce is just that: it’s mine. And your story is yours. Marriage Story is Nicole’s and Charlie’s. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “all happy marriages are alike; each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way.”
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7653254/