A savage, deeply cathartic ‘Marriage Story’

Images courtesy Netflix.

9/10 Writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach set out to create the universal divorce movie, and damn it all he seems to have done it. 

Noah Bumbach’s Marriage Story follows the increasingly acrimonious divorce of Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson). The pair were a star director/actress duo at Charlie’s New York City acting troupe, but Nicole has wanted for years to return home to Los Angeles, which she does as their divorce proceedings begin, taking their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. The two have agreed to settle things between themselves and not get lawyers involved, but Nicole hires high-powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) soon after she moves. The main narrative arc of the film is Charlie realizing he has to fight fire with fire here, first hiring laid-back retiree Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and then his own high-octane divorce specialist in Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) – “I needed my own asshole,” Charlie says. 

The brilliance of Marriage Story is built into its first scene, an eight-minute montage in which Charlie and Nicole narrate prepared lists of what they love about each other, which were written as an exercise at the behest of their marriage counselor. The audience sees the full lists played out, but in the office, Nicole refuses to read hers or listen to Charlie’s. 

From that moment, we know only the good things about their relationship, and we know that they aren’t thinking about them. We, Nicole and Charlie all have completely different understandings of the situation, and they never align again. In many ways, the entire film is contained compressed within this scene. 

From its outset, Marriage Story is silly, fun and charming, a distinct mix of easygoing and bittersweet that recalls the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories of the ‘00s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer. It’s easy to imagine this movie being about those same characters getting divorced. 

Bumbach and editor Jennifer Lame expertly cultivate this feeling with specific cuts. During these initial montages and faster-cutting scenes in the narrative, Marriage Story makes the most out of every gag by consistently cutting on the punchline, leaving viewers laughing heading into the next shots, but when the film slows down, it focuses on massive shifts in exterior emotion done in-shot. An early example is when Nicole cheerfully wishes Charlie goodnight after their counseling session and then silently breaks down immediately once she crosses the threshold out of his sight. 

Both editing styles in their own way showcase the stellar performances by Driver and Johansson, who are absolutely everything they’re made up to be. Some viewers appear genuinely confused by how good the acting is. As the divorce becomes more contentious, each of their characters collapses. It is so horrible and so cathartic to see these characters, whom the first thing we learn about is the happiness of their marriage, lash out in anger and confusion. Driver and Johansson mine every spec of emotion out of the script. 

I bushwhacked my way to Oak Cliff to see The Irishman on the big screen, but not for Marriage Story, and I got that wrong. At so many moments, I want to laugh and cry at the same time, and I really wish I’d experienced this high a degree of subjectivity with a live audience. 

Even these posters, which were barely hung for a movie that had a miniscule theatrical release, wonderfully reflect the separation and in-spite-of-yourself longing of the film.

After its first handful of scenes, the film begins to skip unpredictably through time, with the divorce stretching on like a traffic ticket that just won’t go away – benchmarks are sparse, but given the sheer amount of legal proceedings portrayed and that Henry doesn’t visibly age, it must take place over somewhere between six and 18 months. Even as the portrait of this relationship is fleshed out more and more, the sense that we’re not seeing everything becomes sharper and sharper. 

I have perhaps never seen a more brutal portrayal of the fog of a relationship in hindsight, that permanent unfamiliarity of not being in love with someone anymore. Throughout Marriage Story, I am anxious to make excuses for these characters, to remind myself that they really love each other, but they really don’t. The brilliance of the film is that, just as they can no longer fully see each other, we the audience never fully see them. When Nicole says she’s been unhappy for years based on elements of the relationship we never really see, who are we to say otherwise? 

So, along with Charlie, we suffer in doubt, unbearably close to both individuals and their marriage who have become completely alien, never able to ask what she meant when she said that thing, struggling to fill his role in homekeeping, forever wondering if they ever really loved you. 

If the point of sad songs and sad movies is to stew in post-breakup emotions, thereby freeing you, Marriage Story stews you in the corruption of those emotions through legal proceedings and the inability to move past them. It immediately earns a unique, harsh place in the pantheon of breakup movies, and will likely remain vital viewing for generations. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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