At first Marriage Story felt to me like it wasn’t going to be very relatable to the average viewer. For starters it’s about artists – career pursuits very interesting to the directors, writers, actors and studio executives who bring films into being but a universe away from the plumbers, shop assistants and bank tellers that comprise most of the moviegoing/watching public.
Second, it was about one of those particularly American concerns faced by the creative elite class – whether to live in Los Angeles or New York. Not only does that mean nothing to anybody in the rest of the world, but it seems the latest in a long and subtle line of thought amongst movie-making people – that the rest of America is a wasteland best viewed from 35,000 feet in first class.
When you’re faced with a marriage breakdown and have to spend so much time flying between New York and California, when you can actually afford to fly between New York and California as often as you’d like to, it’s something of a first world problem.
But Baumbach’s script and his leads soon make it apparent that’s just the set dressing. The film spends a decent amount of time on exposition about the character tics of actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver), to make them feel like real people with a real history, and it does it seamlessly while telling its story. So before you even realise it, you’ve come to know these two people.
It feels like there’s always been an uneasy truce between Nicole and Charlie where she put her dreams of movie stardom on hold while he built up his career. Now, after many years and having raised a young son together, he feels like he’s given her a legitimate career in the theatre, but with opportunities starting to come her way, Nicole is bristling against it.
Marriage counselling breaks down when she refuses to read the letter the counsellor suggested they each write containing what they like about each other. She’s offered a pilot in LA and takes it, moving to live with her mother (how great to see Julie Hagerty on screen again, as a ditzy but loving former actress), taking their son Henry with her to put him in school and leaving Charlie to his career in New York. Both of them amicably figure they can make cross country visits work until their respective careers offer the chance to live closer.
But, going against their initial wishes not to involve lawyers, Nicole enlists Nora (a fiery, brilliant Laura Dern), especially when she feels that – on top of the other neglect Charlie has shown her – he’s had an affair with one of his offsiders. Charlie, disillusioned and hurt that Nicole has resorted to something they agreed not to do, considers two lawyers – the aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta) and the soft-approach Bert (Alan Alda).
As it devolves into sniping and pretty baseless accusations during the court hearing, Nicole and Charlie do their best to stay amicable outside their official fight for the sake of their son. And after it all, there isn’t really a resolution as such. Terms are agreed upon and changes made in lives, but if you’re expecting a Hollywood happy ending, where they realise they were made for each other all along and rush back into each others’ arms, it’s pretty clear from the get go Baumbach is only interested in emotional reality, not what we wish would happen.
Johansson and Driver are both effortlessly real, although Driver is so weird looking I still have a hard time with him playing a normal guy (see the The Report for an even more stark example of it – just because he’s cut his hair short doesn’t mean he doesn’t look like an exceptionally polite murderer).
And as you’ve heard, this propels Baumbach out of the hipster Woody Allen mould, where he only talks about manbun-wearing literary types in Brooklyn, and into the leagues of a bigger filmmaker with wider appeal – ironically, while bringing many of the motifs that made his indie career with him.
Marriage Story is exclusive to Netflix, catch it there.
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