Marriage Story (2019)
November 23, 2019 1:21 PM - Subscribe

A stage director and his actor wife (and their child) struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver, Wallace Shawn, and Azhy Robertson as Henry (with a scene-stealing performance by Martha Kelly as the child custody evaluator).
posted by sallybrown (16 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I thought this film was incredible. Some of the most moving close-up shots since Moonlight, all of the scenes involving the lawyers nailed the dynamics (down to the fish tank in one office and the rush of excitement for ordering lunch and the fact that Alda’s character’s advice was discarded in favor of Liotta’s), the almost-slapstick comedy scenes of Merritt Weaver serving the divorce papers and Martha Kelly watching Driver slice his arm open by accident. Driver singing “Being Alive” brought tears to my eyes.

And yet...there was still something missing from it for me, like the film didn’t fully make it around to realizing how wrong Driver’s character was, or maybe the ways he was wrong and the reasons why. His choice to keep fighting for New York (that reflected his larger ignoring of his son in reality in favor of his son as a power struggle)—did the character and the film understand how bad that was? After the blowout, horrible fight in his rental apartment, the film seems to embrace the ways in which Johansson’s character was right—about their marriage, their kid being happier in LA, how things her husband wants are “a promise” while things she wants are “we’ll think about it.” But I wasn’t sure that Driver’s character understood how much of his anger stemmed from an unfairness of life that can’t be fixed—that sometimes things that are better for your kid are worse for you, and that’s not someone’s particular fault—or realized that he let himself get caught into the rip-off scheme that divorce lawyer can be at times (not all divorce lawyers!). The film did a good job of illustrating how so much of litigation is people trying to use lawyers and the courts to tell themselves stories about their lives and failures—you are wrong and I am right, and if you won’t admit that I am going to make a judge shove it down your throat!!!—and instead it just drains them and whittles them down, and no one wins. I guess I just wasn’t sure whether the film intended to portray that, or whether it got caught up in the same self-righteousness as Driver’s character.

Driver is so mesmerizing that perhaps I just felt too charmed by him—how could anyone resist the sight of him crying on that bed?—for a character who was ultimately kind of a monster, albeit a very common one.
posted by sallybrown at 1:53 PM on November 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

That Driver's character never really gets it is the point of view in
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:27 AM on December 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Virtually everybody else in this film is more interesting to watch than the two leads, especially the attorneys played by Dern and Liotta. Their pumped-up personas seemed, weirdly, more real to me than either the husband or the wife.

The movie suffers from not showing any downside to the divorce for Johhanson's character. We don't see her struggling to make ends meet, or scrambling to find an attorney or a place to live like we do with Driver's character. We don't see her having to confront any difficult situations with their child. Granted, the loss of the marriage itself is the ultimate downside, but from a storytelling point of view, the audience isn't given much to work with with her.

Driver is supposedly a MacArthur 'Genius' award winner, but he doesn't display any sort of special creativity or intelligence. That said, he doesn't come off as a bad father, or an especially difficult spouse. It's hard, for me, to think of him as a villain.

I went into this movie wanting to see a realistic depiction of a marriage in conflict, because I think that subject is mostly gotten wrong in film and television. I wanted to see something more along the lines of Hawke & Delpy in Before Midnight. We get a fight scene in Marriage Story, but the rest of the movie doesn't prepare enough to really let us feel for either of the characters when it goes down.
posted by spudsilo at 2:01 PM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I empathized very strongly with Henry, and to that end the film did a pretty poor job of representing the impact that the divorce would have on the kid, particularly when there are clear power plays going on between the parents with the kid as the leverage. I've, like, been there. Henry would be going to therapy, acting out, crying, confused. Instead he's the Chill Kid who does nothing but play with his toys and piss off his dad by not wanting to wear the costume he had custom made, and doesn't even seem perturbed when his dad is passed out on the floor with blood everywhere.

Also the singing-in-the-bar was 100% indulgent and unnecessary. But apparently that is a thing now?
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:23 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is the first time ever I've seen Ray Liotta in a white dress shirt and a suit - I couldn't recognize him.
A very touching, sad film.
posted by growabrain at 5:33 PM on December 10, 2019

This is the first time ever I've seen Ray Liotta in a white dress shirt and a suit - I couldn't recognize him.


Anyway, the acting in this was great, except for Scarjo, who was merely ok. The dialogue was absolutely ridiculous. No one talks like this. Ever. Even Genius Grant winners.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:58 AM on December 18, 2019

Interesting. I absolutely loved this movie and found it very powerful. I wish I'd watched in in the theater instead of on Netflix. Some things I loved:

1) The slight unreality of it: all of the supporting characters just a little too absurd, the physical spaces like set pieces - it was just a little bit more theater than movie.

2) The performances of all the older actors - Laura Dern's predatory, maternal figure - like a mother spider. Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Haggarty - all totally terrific - all just over the line into stereotype territory, all shown through Driver's character's myopic eye, but in the hands of very mature actors who are able to bring depth even into these flattened characters.

3) The performance of parenting and of Azhy Roberts who is a very gifted child actor! Most movies that show parenting are completely unbelievable - I believed these two as parents - their efforts to be good at it, their casual intimacy with their child. Most American movies that show parenting have this really disturbing like sexual undertone - and a stiffness and awkwardness. This reminded me of the real mundanity of parenting.

4) I loved the echoes - the way the two characters were alike - like in the scene where we first see Nichole surrounded by a hive of Hollywood characters, then see Charlie surrounded by his Theater people. They each get a musical number at the end - something that shows their connection - and their differences (hers a collaboration with family - his a solo performance for an audience of curated acolytes).

Now that I've read some critiques of the the ideology of the movie, I see validity in them. And also in Richard Brody's critique that Baumbach seems to be trying to exonerate himself in what is an autobiographical movie about his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh...

but... I was very touched and felt a deep resonance with how life often features suffering at our own hands. We do things wrong and fail in huge ways that injure others, mostly the people closest to us. And I found it heartening to believe the fairtail ending, one that felt true to my own experience, that through deeply wrenching life experience we can experience modest transformation and be modestly better people.

I am thinking in an unformed way about how pleasurable it was for me to watch (what I'm not the first to say about Baumbach) is a Woody Allen movie... since I haven't watched Woody Allen since 1992, but I'm of the group for whom his movies were extremely formative of my early personality.

I listen to the Film Comment podcast and in the last episode Shonni Enelow was talking about the way this movie (self consciously) uses method acting styles that are now out of fashion... It was educational for me, maybe of interest.
posted by latkes at 7:49 PM on December 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Does Marriage Story pass the Bechtel test? I count five speaking parts for women, and they talk to each other, but do they ever talk to each other about anything besides a man?
posted by latkes at 7:14 AM on December 24, 2019

I think after we first see the ScarJo character shoot her pilot she talks with her agent(?) about how the scene went, before her agent then gives her the lawyer referral.
posted by coolname at 10:32 PM on December 25, 2019

I guess I’m the only one who thinks Charlie died of the knife cut and everything that comes after is just stuff in his head, kind of like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge? I haven’t had a chance to rewatch it to see if this makes sense, but that was a not-subtle fade to black.
posted by sageleaf at 2:35 PM on January 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

>>Does Marriage Story pass the Bechtel test?
>I think after we first see the ScarJo character shoot her pilot she talks with her agent(?) about how the scene went,

I think even there, when the agent tries to talk about how the scene went, SJ immediately changes the topic to Adam Driver.
posted by fleacircus at 2:42 AM on January 31, 2020

I haven’t had a chance to rewatch it to see if this makes sense, but that was a not-subtle fade to black.

My SO was annoyed they didn't show the observer going to SJ's house to watch dinner there.

But the outcome of the scene is that Adam Driver fucks it all up so badly that he loses the whole divorce and there's no more to be said. That's why the ominous feeling of it imho. Or it could be that now he's a ghost at UCLA.
posted by fleacircus at 2:53 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Extremely harsh takedown. Unnecessarily mean but the concerns do resonate for me. I especially agree the Randy Newman score wasn't an asset (plus geez I think of all the film composers out there hustling, give someone else a chance!)

It's interesting, I can definitely agree with just about every critical thing I've heard about this movie but I stand by loving it! And despite its problems, I still feel it touches on very real things about how relationships end and how people do and don't change.

I'm glad it got made and glad I saw it.
posted by latkes at 2:04 PM on February 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I disliked this movie quite a bit, so I was ready to read that extremely harsh takedown with pleasure. I see his point, but the deployment of so much erudition in the expression of a preference for e.g. Mistress America over Marriage Story is amusingly absurd to me. So I guess I did get some pleasure out of it, but sadly not the turbo-dunking on Marriage Story I was hoping for.
posted by fleacircus at 2:29 AM on February 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Since no one has mentioned it, the power struggle between Charlies' stage manager and his wife. The adultery was mentioned as the last item of why Nicole wanted the divorce, not quite off-handed but in that voice of "oh yeah, that small detail but kind of big detail." The stage manager putting the move on Charlie at a party was enough to cause an actual marital dispute. It should have been obvious to Charlie that sleeping with your stage manager/employee is 1) shitting where you eat; 2) impossible to hide within an organization that enjoys sexual gossip, as manifested by Shawn Wallace's character; 3) inappropriate boss/employee relationship; 4) sexual privilege and 5) just might be enough to alienate the wife with a combination of public humiliation and betrayal. The stage manager was right in pointing out Charlie's hypocrisy of sleeping with her while he is married but not when he is free.

There are multiple power struggles happening in the film between the couple, their attorneys and the people in the social sphere they inhabit. It was mentioned above that Nicole did not seem to suffer from divorce beyond the death of the marriage itself. Good.
posted by jadepearl at 5:25 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I first became aware of this movie when I saw a clip of the fight scene on YouTube. I thought it was pretty bad -- amateur/student level acting. I mean, compare it to the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio fight scene from Revolutionary Road, and well, there's no comparison.

But I did eventually watch it and it was a better movie than I expected from just watching that one clip. I agree with others in this thread that Charlie never gets that his refusal to compromise on what he wants and expecting Nicole to just give up the things that she wants ruins their marriage, but I think that's realistic. My experience of men with whom I've been romantically involved has been that they never think they've wronged me at the time because of some seriously entrenched male entitlement issues, but they often do gradually grow into an understanding of what they've done over a period of years, and then are sorry for what they've done. Charlie will probably understand the death of his marriage at some point, but right now he doesn't. Right now he's just trying to deal with the fact that he's gone from getting exactly what he wants romantically and professionally, to having to make serious personal sacrifices to get anything that he wants out of life. It looked good on him, frankly.

Laura Dern's predatory, maternal figure - like a mother spider

"Preying mantis" was the simile that occurred to me. It was definitely a huge mistake on Nicole's part to get the lawyers involved.
posted by orange swan at 5:41 PM on November 12, 2020

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