Two Characters in Search of an Author
Films about marital conflict are a Hollywood staple. They work because we understand the arc of the narrative; we know that the director will eventually “make the couple,” producing that delicious moment of sweet, romantic, blissful reconciliation, bringing tears to our eyes as the credits roll and the screen goes dark. But what if the parties to the conflict—the wife and husband—have decided, as the story opens, that reconciliation is out of the question, that the marriage is over?
The opening scene in “Marriage Story” features a mediator explaining to Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)—and the audience—that they are engaged in mediation leading to separation and divorce. Viewers are allowed to retain only a semblance of hope that this couple will reconcile. Minutes into the film, Nicole walks out of this session, refusing to read her “what I love about you” list (which the viewer has heard, with scenes replayed), requested by the mediator and designed to put the couple in a positive frame of mind for the difficult talks to come.
Nicole has given up. She wants to “stay friends,” but she’s convinced—and it seems rightfully so—that Charlie—a director, a brilliant, creative force in the New York/Brooklyn theater community, and about to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant—is a selfish, egoistic man who has overwhelmed her, denying her a deserved identity as an actress as well as her ambition to direct: “he didn’t see me as someone separate from himself.” She heads to Los Angeles to star in a corny sci-fi TV pilot, declaring “at least it’s mine.”
Charlie is arguably not so convinced that the marriage has been irreparably damaged, but his conduct doesn’t suggest that he’s ready to compromise and make up. In an early, cringeworthy moment, he disregards the escalating tension between them and gives her “notes” on a recent theater rehearsal, suggesting that she is “faking emotion” on stage. He makes no “play” for her—never once utters the words “I love you”—and his demonstrations of affection are few. The most he can muster is, “we had a good life in Brooklyn.” When Nicole gets an LA lawyer, he’s incredulous that she’s violated their agreement to divorce amicably, without legal advice and assistance. In a big “argument” scene well into the film, he counters her passion and tears with the bizarre revelation that he passed up a lot of sex in his twenties to do something he didn’t want to do: marry her.
The conflict between the main characters and the performances by Driver and Johansson are the strengths of “Marriage Story.” They are completely believable as contemporary spouses fighting their way to independence from each other. The “argument” scene, in particular, is a tour de force by Driver. And Johansson is credible as she articulates the beaten-down wife in a reasonably well-off couple who have been seen most often as a professional team. An early comment by one of the theater troupe is that “Charlie and Nicole” is something that is always said together, that one cannot imagine one without the other—underscoring Nicole’s plaint that she has been subsumed in Charlie.
From the opening bell, it’s clear Charlie and Nicole are done, which creates the conundrum that, besides revealing the gulf that separates the protagonists, what’s a script writer to do? How to fill two hours, when there’s no couple to be made? Writer and director Noah Baumbach has some strategies, most of which weaken the film. For a while, the lawyers take over, all played by big-name actors (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda), and all caricatures. Some of the lawyer posturing is funny, some of it even rings true (Dern’s feminist set piece on women in divorce proceedings having to be “perfect”), but it’s not interesting enough and wrongly gives the impression that it’s the lawyers who are standing in the way of reconciliation.
Much screen time is consumed with Charlie’s affection for Henry (competently played by Azhy Robertson), his 8-year-old son, an obsession which doesn’t fit his personality as we otherwise know it and contradicts the idea that Charlie is selfish. Charlie seems to be a pretty good Dad, as Nicole has told us, but when Charlie’s fitness as a parent is tested by a lengthy—indeed, interminable and overplayed—visit by a social worker/evaluator, he fails pitifully, actually gushing blood as he ushers her out the door. Not so funny, and not believable.
New York is portrayed as crowded and dark and somewhat seedy. Charlie has his theater family there, but little else. Los Angeles is presented as full of light and space and even trees. Charlie is New York; Nicole—freed from Charlie—is Los Angeles, where dreams come true.
To demonstrate the effect on the couple, on who they are and who they’ve become, when the divorce is virtually settled, the script offers two contrasting scenes literally out of musical comedy, in this case Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” Nicole hams it up doing a song-and-dance routine with her mother and sister, each also an overdone comic character (the song written by Sondheim works in the musical to send off a bad boyfriend), while entertaining a crowd of several dozen friends and relatives in her mother’s bright and sunny home—a fantasy of family and community. Baumbach then shows Charlie in a dark and windowless Manhattan bar with several workmates, badly singing “Being Alive,” a maudlin ballad with the line “alone is alone, not alive.” Not much subtlety there.
“Marriage Story” deserves the kudos it’s received for the strong acting of Driver and Johansson, and for some gripping moments when their differences are laid bare. Even so, there’s not enough discussion by the couple of Nicole’s reasons for leaving, nor of Charlie’s reasons for wanting to stay—besides his desire to be around his child. What surrounds the couple, instead, is close to pure kitsch. To paraphrase Pirandello, we have two characters in search of an author who can write the rest of the story.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson
Runtime: 137 minutes