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The Surprising Maturity of Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s latest film portrays both sides of a messy divorce, for once.

Courtesy of Netflix

You appear to have been dropped in at the climax of a romcom, when the man enumerates the large, small, and idiosyncratic things he appreciates about the woman, all those reasons he can’t love anybody else. Only here they’re already married, with a son, past the happy-ending goalpost, and both parties offer up their separate lists. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a brilliant actress, a mother whose tireless playfulness more than compensates for the trail of mess and open cupboard doors left in her wake. Charlie (Adam Driver), the director of their New York theater company, is a self-made man who’s transcended a booze-shadowed childhood, who sews on buttons and loves getting up with his kid in the middle of the night; he even has taste and “never looks embarrassing, which is hard for a man.” The charismatic wattage of both stars, which could have made this stuff feel extra emetic, works the other way: There’s no difficulty imagining each as an irreplaceable love object.

Even though this is (demographically, socioeconomically) a familiar setting for a Noah Baumbach movie, you sense that emotionally, it just can’t be—and you’re right. It’s a trick. The lists of compliments you’re hearing have been written at the behest of a mediator to smooth the way for a more civilized division of assets. The first full scene shows a distraught Nicole refusing to read hers aloud—“I’m not happy with what I wrote”—while her still-smug-in-extremis husband (“I like what I wrote,” he says) ingratiates himself with the mediator, until eventually she storms out, leaving the two men to “suck each other’s dicks” if that’s what they want.

So, like Baumbach’s breakthrough hit, The Squid and the Whale (2005), Marriage Story examines the death throes of a failed relationship. But as their openings suggest—the earlier film starts with a family doubles game in which dad encourages the teenager to target his mother’s weak backhand, then hits the ball at her himself as if he’d love to strike her dead—the great difference here is in tone and, crucially, perspective. Both parents, this time around, are given a viable point of view, and both sometimes try, though painfully, haltingly, to understand the other’s.

This isn’t the first time Baumbach has experimented with showing the experience of different members of a troubled family. Yet, whether neglected in childhood and now chronically unemployed (Adam Sandler), or fussed over and now manically successful (Ben Stiller), the siblings in Baumbach’s last movie, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), shared roughly the same aggrieved man-child outlook as their aging-sculptor father, played with gusto by Dustin Hoffman. Likewise, the protagonist in While We’re Young (Stiller again), a documentary filmmaker wounded by his lack of success, rants when frauds and hacks outdo him, and confesses to his wife that he feels like a child posing as a grown-up. At root, the question that obsesses these characters is: Why am I not winning? Which is to say, why am I not getting the attention and approval and love I’m entitled to?

In Marriage Story, Nicole has given up a promising movie career to devote herself to Charlie and his work in New York, and he feels betrayed when she, having taken a starring role in a pilot and put their son in school in LA, wants to stay on the West Coast, as he’d always promised they might. He can be selfish and oblivious, using her ideas, soaking up the glory and awards. She went along but now resents it, and though they’ve agreed to do things amicably, she lawyers up, hiring a pit bull attorney delectably played by Laura Dern, and pulls some standard dirty tricks. He cheats; she hacks his email. When she brings up his affair, he complains, though visibly, helplessly aware of how ludicrous and pathetic he sounds, about all those other times in his sexy, successful twenties, when he could have cheated on her but didn’t. She drinks too much; he punches a wall and tells her he wishes she would die.

Yet things don’t stop there. Nicole and Charlie also apologize, defend each other, prioritize the child’s wishes and well-being, keep struggling through toward some livable compromise. They cry not like raging toddlers but like adults—when no one’s looking, while doing their best not to. The result is a sensitive portrayal of how people can justify things they’d sworn never to do, how they can try and fail and then, despite humiliation and disappointment, keep on trying even when, in a conventional sense, it might seem to be too late. Johansson and Driver reward the director’s close attention: You see each, framed, isolated in medium shots, faces contorting in pain or shifting in reflection.

Remembering their early days, Nicole tells her lawyer that the sex was good in the same way the talking was—“everything is like everything in a relationship”—thus also tacitly acknowledging that what strengthens a marriage is often what later unravels it. Evidently she’d liked Charlie’s decisiveness, had at first wanted to be subsumed in someone else’s project rather than take charge of her own, and it’s no one’s fault that she can’t settle for that anymore. Unlike Squid, it turns out, this movie is not showing you a car crash or its aftermath, but a living thing that’s being maintained against steep odds. The main difference, perhaps, between a supposedly good parent and a poor one—like that between good and shoddy work—is continually renewed, redoubled effort.

Why does this more humane and hopeful account of arty bicoastal types struggling to co-exist feel like such a leap forward for its writer-director? While Baumbach has always been perceptive and funny, the register of his less successful movies can feel oddly flat, even in those moments when his characters confront one another: rage, cry, throw punches. A bewildered, angry child becomes a bewildered, angry old man, with little in between. A character will tell the embittered artist, in his principled obscurity, that he is the one who’s really fixated on worldly success—as if that hadn’t been obvious to the audience within minutes of his appearance onscreen. The sculptor-father’s rant about the talentless mediocrity of his more lauded friend in The Meyerowitz Stories could have been strutted and fretted by the writer-father character in Squid. Just as the writer steals books from his estranged wife, insisting she’s written her maiden name in them later as a ploy, so the sculptor invites himself over to an ex-wife’s house decades after their divorce and takes home a book he claims was always his. It can be hard to keep your attention on people who aren’t curious about themselves or one another, and who repeat the same tantrums from scene to scene, movie to movie.

What’s new in Marriage Story isn’t that you empathize with Charlie and Nicole, but that you can’t tell what they’ll do or say next—they’re sensitive people responding to one another. What Baumbach gets out of his cast here—even the smaller, broader characters, like Dern’s, or Alan Alda as an insufficiently ruthless LA divorce lawyer Charlie briefly hires—is thrilling. Driver, rather wasted as a generic hipster in previous Baumbachs like While We’re Young and Frances Ha, is a marvel of restraint and its breakages. When he accidentally slices into his arm in front of the social worker observing his parenting, he must hold it together, blood soaking through paper towels, till she leaves and he can collapse on the kitchen floor, assuring the kid that he just needs a rest. The scene’s physical comedy only heightens its subtler, sadder ironies, such as the exhaustion of having to perform under observation what you in fact are; the pained, fallen clown is so palpably the responsible and loving parent that the grimacing phony was straining to impersonate just moments before.

There was a suggestion of this depth in the films Baumbach wrote with Greta Gerwig, especially Mistress America, which allowed the characters more tonal shifts and hairpin turns. Late in Marriage Story, each spouse performs part of a song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, Nicole gallivanting through “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with her mother and sister, Charlie ending a night at a bar with a solo rendition of “Being Alive” that’s no less affecting for its whiff of a man somewhat trapped in his own theatrical self-pity. This move, though, hints at limitations of scope, as if Baumbach is signaling his awareness that the film—with its questions of upscale New York vs. upscale LA, experimental theater vs. Hollywood, the overdetermined his-and-hers pains of heterosexual mating—could almost have been made in 1970, as Company was. The outside world barely impinges on these characters. The closest you get is that early reference to Charlie’s difficult Indiana childhood.

Still, Baumbach has been looking, Austen-like, at the same patch of ground for decades now, and it’s a delight to see it suddenly yield him new accesses of feeling and insight and humor, as if he’s doing a Woody Allen in reverse. Squid has long remained his greatest achievement, rooted as it was in the real and moving struggle of the children. Since then, stuck working through adolescent preoccupations of thwarted ambition, the yearning for parental approval, helpless generational repetition, his catalog has comprised quite a bit of what his disgruntled daddy figures would term “minor work.” Marriage Story isn’t that—in a sense it’s his first truly grown-up movie, which makes it gloriously hard to predict what he might do next.