Divorce is an arduous emotional process. Such a subject would seem ripe to place on screen, except that the animosity exemplified by each side towards the other is hard to place objectively. This was why Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) was successful, by using Meryl Streep as the antagonist that was dragging Dustin Hoffman down. However, such a portrayal is problematic, as a divorce is a separation that is equally difficult for both sides. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi was much more effective with his A Separation (2011), and indie darling Noah Baumbach has now attempted to show an equitable example of divorce in Marriage Story (2019).
Marriage Story is a semi-autobiographical film about Baumbach’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theater director in New York and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is his actress collaborator. The two have a son (Azhy Robertson). As the film opens their marriage is already on the verge of collapsing, and we follow them as they attempt an amicable separation that inevitably involves lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta).
Baumbach has become famed for his meticulousness with an incredible attention to detail within each camera angle, line delivery, and blocking. This is apparent in the impeccable craft of Marriage Story, which expertly flits between drama, empathy, and comedy. It showcases the awkwardness that the characters find themselves in with their “amicable” separation, and later shows the dark slippery slope of involving lawyers, who end up dealing the blows for you.
Baumbach has always been known as an actor’s director, as he crafts the scripts he works on with his talent, as well as determinedly pulling at a specific performance he wants. He was able to bring Adam Sandler’s best performance in years in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) and brings about incredibly layered and nuanced portrayals from both Driver and Johansson. And it must be noted that Laura Dern is spectacular in her role as Nicole’s lawyer, bringing about the relish that she winningly encapsulated in her Renata in Big Little Lies (2017-2019).
However, I simply was incapable of meeting this film at an emotional level. The opening sequence is very sweet and the closest I felt to either of these characters: it involves both Charlie and Nicole making a list of all the things they like about the other while a Randy Newman score plays in the background. From then on, though, the story became too specific to the privileged, white, divorce narrative, which seemed to be excluding viewers instead of inviting them in. It seemed as if there were inside jokes littered for the select group that would be able to relate to the specific scenes. That’s not to say that one needs to have lived through a divorce in order to understand it onscreen; that is certainly not the case in A Separation, which was able to give ample reason to both of the divorcing subjects while allowing an emotional depth viewers could grasp. Marriage Story was incapable of adding a further dimension to its divorce plot and thus shut out the relatability that general viewers could form with the characters.
Marriage Story is expertly crafted, written, directed, and acted, and yet it is the emotional core of the story, which seems to be too narrow in its scope, that leads viewers to feel uninterested in the result of the narrative. As such it seems Baumbach may have been focusing too much on the minute details of the film to figure out the transparency of his film’s message.