Sometimes a movie comes out that everyone (by whom I mean mainly critics at publications whose name you would recognize) raves about, that has the biggest of big names attached to it, that treats a topic of contemporary interest, and yet your experience of watching it delivers the opposite of “wow!” It’s not a terrible movie, there are things to admire about it, but you leave the theatre underwhelmed and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Such a film is Marriage Story, which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, with supporting roles filled by a dream team of big-name actors including Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, and Ray Liotta. Marriage Story comes with sterling credentials, including a 97% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, 94% on Metacritic, and accolades from previous festivals like Venice (where it was nominated for Best Film) and Toronto (where it took second place in the People’s Choice Award). And yet my reaction to this film was largely meh—the film shows you beautiful people struggling with the most ordinary of problems, and wants you to believe that it is presenting a portrait of a marriage that began as perfection and then tragically went bad. To me, the marriage was immediately identifiable as a glaring series of inequalities that finally became unbearable for the person who perpetually got the short end of the stick.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a hot young director in New York City. His actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) left her successful television career in Los Angeles to work with him in the theatre, where he calls all the shots in indie productions (the rehearsal we are shown unintentionally suggests a parody of the avant-garde rather than a serious play) that get him named a MacArthur Fellow (the so-called “genius” award that comes with a completely unrestricted $625,000 award). The problem is that he has been calling all the shots in their home life as well, and supposedly joint decisions have always favored his career over hers. Nicole also has a close relationship with her family in LA, and would like to be near them, but somehow opportunities for the family (which includes an adorable child, Henry, played by Azhy Robertson) to move back to California always seem to get turned down in favor of something that Charlie prefers.
Nicole and Charlie have decided to divorce, and intend to do it amicably and without lawyers. Both initially view the other as devoted to the relationship and their child, with the inequality of their situation (not only professionally, but in terms of who has actually done the hard emotional labor of caring for their child) revealed to them (and presumably to us, although you may, as I did, spot them a whole lot earlier) over the course of the film. When Nicole is offered a starring TV role, she moves back to Los Angeles and into the embrace of her family, which includes her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merrit Wever, excellent as always). After talking with lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), Nicole decides she’s been giving up too much; in response, Charlies also seeks legal counsel, working alternatively with the down-and-dirty Jay (Ray Liotta) and the grandfatherly Bert (Alan Alda).
Marriage Story is Charlie’s movie—he’s the character that changes the most, and Baumbach gives him way too much credit throughout—which is disappointing since most American movies are already about the men in them, and this one seemed to promise something different. There’s some ugliness during their struggles (how many contested divorces don’t include some of that?) but things eventually work out, which is no surprise, since writer/director Baumbach is clearly on the side of these beautiful and successful people and wants everything to be OK with them (it’s no secret that the story was partially informed by his own divorce). That’s what bothers me most about Marriage Story—it presumes that we will automatically be invested in the private lives of the central characters because they represent some sort of ideal that we are expected to honor–they’re basically celebrities for the arty crowd, a cool kid alternative for people who turn up their nose at plain old movie-star celebrities. More materially, I don’t see the insight and intimacy that a lot of critics apparently find in this movie—there are good scenes, but others seems highly unnatural, as if the characters were puppets forced to play out scripts at the whim of puppet master Baumbach. | Sarah Boslaugh