Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach | 137 min | Netflix
No one wants to say it because Woody Allen’s name is poison these days, but watching the movies of romantically linked-in-real-life storytellers Baumbach and Greta Gerwig often feels like a direct offshoot of the Woodster’s work, updated for the 21st Century. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this about their films—both when they’ve worked together and independently—but specific to this picture we get a collection of tropes from Allen’s best material: a plot involving creative characters dealing with their personal, romantic, and professional lives, actors walking in and out of frame, a jazz and classical score, laugh-out-loud moments playing off life’s absurd moments—even though Baumbach’s never been a gag writer—and genuine, heartbreaking pathos. The familiarity is compounded by Scarlett Johansson in the lead and Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn in supporting roles, all of whom have featured in Allen’s best movies. None of that is a critique, and while Woody—scandal notwithstanding—isn’t making films anywhere near his best these days, it makes this humble cinephile happy to see the inspiration of great filmmaking carried forward.
I gather Marriage Story is also inspired by Baumbach’s former union with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh—which makes me want to go back and watch her and Alan Cumming’s underappreciated Hollywood lifestyle and relationship dramedy, The Anniversary Party.
Marriage Story tells the tale of a couple, a New York theatre director, Charlie (Adam Driver), and a Californian actor, Nicole (Johansson), who are splitting up—she’s got a pilot in LA, and she’s brought their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. At first, they seem like they could work it out—they’re civil and caring. But then Nicole gets a lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), which forces Charlie get one (Alan Alda), and then another (Ray Liotta). Soon, they’ll meet in courtrooms to hash out the custody issues.
Much of the online discussion around Marriage Story is about whether the film is more sympathetic to Nicole or Charlie. I think it’s pretty fair to both—though Charlie’s infidelities and self-centredness is pretty evident, putting him solidly in the debit column, he’s a mostly solid father to Henry. Driver’s scenes with Robertson driving around Los Angeles show superhuman levels of patience around a precocious but willful child. It’s Nicole’s lawyer who’s a piece of work—Dern plays Nora like a shark with legs.
And that’s where the film ends up going, an indictment of the American legal system around divorce—and those who profit from it. It’s a system that bankrupts people who want to end their relationship in a fair and equitable way but still raise their children. It’s not hard to sympathize with either lead, but the mess they make of the split is laid firmly at the feet of the lawyers and their overpriced machinations. Nora gets some good speeches where she lays out where women get the shitty end of the stick, expectations-wise, but if the movie offers up villainous figures, it’s her, Alda, and Liotta.
While it does deal with similar themes, this is no dirge, no Kramer vs Kramer. Marriage Story is surprisingly funny and light-hearted, especially in the first act. While it heaves dollops of sadness by the end, it also locates hope in this story.
Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances. Both are having career years—her with Jojo Rabbit, and Avengers: Endgame, him with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Dead Don’t Die, The Report, and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. I look forward to seeing them both on the awards circuit come January representing Marriage Story, picking up every well-deserved accolade.