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You could drive a person crazy: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

By Kate Jinx
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their career best in this bittersweet tale of divorce

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Photograph by Wilson Webb

A tragically embroidered cushion lays on a seat in an otherwise sleek, masculine office of a Los Angeles family law firm: “Eat. Drink. Remarry.” A glib ornament to offset the torrents of prickly emotions that separation doesn’t just evoke but wrenches up from some deep well of adult-made hell. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a tale of two cities (Los Angeles and New York) that slips effortlessly between the comedy and tragedy of a couple consciously uncoupling.

Baumbach, known American chronicler of the mess inherent to long-term relationships (see also: warring parents mid divorce in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, a chilly stand-off in 2007’s Margot at the Wedding and a gen-X couple spicing up their lives with an ayahuasca weekend in 2014’s While We’re Young) has the rare ability as a writer/director to set about presenting two sides of a story, and to actually do so. Here, he’s at his peak with career-best collaborators Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Rough and smooth sidle alongside each other, bottle up and explode. And it’s delicious.

Young marrieds Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) – thirty-somethings who have until now successfully combined their work in theatre with their Brooklyn home life – are introduced by a sweet moment of sentiment. The qualities they find so endearing in each other are spoken over a montage of post meet-cute events: birthday cake at breakfast, bathroom haircuts, an occasional outburst. They each list traits that invoke charitable feelings that could quickly flip to unbearable if and when the romance is ruptured. The words – a list known as “warm fuzzies” when I was growing up – aren’t the ruse of a flashback, but an exercise set forth by their mediator. This reminder of what they ever saw in each other winds its way throughout the film, Nicole pulling herself up when she still uses “honey” during a nasty fight.

They are – they both want everyone to know – going to end their coupledom in the most amicable way possible. But with their son Henry and artistic pursuits to think of, that easy-breezy ideal is near impossible. Charlie, a non-native New Yorker who has all the trappings of one, is content directing his own contemporary indie theatre company called, in a cute nod to a famous Shakespearean scene cue, Exit Ghost. Nicole, on the other hand, an actress from a Hollywood family through and through, has been trying to nudge her husband and child westward for years. When she lands a role in a blatantly terrible new TV sci-fi series in Los Angeles, she seizes the opportunity to exist outside of acting for Charlie for once (a role somewhere between wife, muse and collaborator), taking Henry with her to shoot the pilot episode.

Space is at a premium: Los Angeles, noted by a recurring joke, has a lot of it; Nicole never felt she had any of her own at work or home; Henry now has two bedroom’s worth; and Charlie’s just fine with his lot, repeating that they’re a New York family as much for the lawyers’ benefit as his own. Once the emotional distance between them moves into the physical realm, their desire to keep things simple quick-pickles into something between a rational argument and an all-out war.

“Sorry I look so schleppy,” apologises Nora (Laura Dern), an immaculately dressed lawyer. A clear killer, almost softened by fluffy cushions and complimentary biscuits, she speaks to Nicole in a way that implies “I see you.” Sure, it also says, “I will empty your husband’s pockets,” but Nicole’s in too deep to fully hear that part. Nora is the first of a trio of family lawyers – all ciphers for the best and worst of their profession – a Cerberus guarding not so much what is just, but what is judicial. Charlie floats between two: Ray Liotta’s fast-talking, powerhouse Jay (he of the embroidered cushion) who charges out his time like liquid gold; and Alan Alda’s Bert, a genial semi-retired gent who got into the biz, unfortunately, for all the right reasons. Seeing Henry play with his office pet, an old flat-faced moggy, he warns “I wouldn’t expect too much from that cat,” and you get the feeling that Charlie might not get what he wants from Bert, aside from being spoken to “like a human”.

Many years ago at a New York Q&A screening of the 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park, an audience member asked co-writer Joan Didion what gave her the idea that she and her late husband John Gregory Dunne could make a film about heroin users if neither of them had any history of addiction. Didion, ever cool, flatly replied, “It’s a film about love.” Recently pressed by the moderator at a New York Film Festival junket about his desire to make “tragic divorce films”, Baumbach disagreed with the question’s premise, saying that Marriage Story explored love in a different way. Unlike Didion, however, Baumbach has his own history to pull from. A child of divorced parents, he and actor Jennifer Jason Leigh separated in 2010, also torn between two coasts with a son in the middle.

Henry (Azhy Robertson) is what everyone’s supposedly fighting for, but his needs and feelings are forced to take a backseat in the process. He puts up with being sworn at by his frazzled dad (I imagine parent viewers will revel in the flippant manner both Charlie and Nicole use to speak about their own parenting), puts up with two homes and a new life, but puts his foot down in true kid-style when it comes to the subject of his Halloween costume. Robertson plays him in a goofy but clear-eyed way, susceptible to both hugs and tantrums. I haven’t seen a better child actor in a film this year aside from Clémentine Grenier’s Charlotte in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth, another exceptional film about familial wreckage, and actors.

Of course, there are other bystanders affected by splits, and here none more so than Nicole’s mother and sister who both share her profession. Julie Hagerty is in impeccable high-strung mode as Sandy, a retiree who treats the tragedy in her own life with a disinfectant entirely made from bloody-minded optimism, but it’s Merritt Wever (seen recently as the softly spoken but efficient detective in TV’s Unbreakable) as sister Cassie who manages to steal the limelight despite minimal scenes. It’s always been my dream to be cast in a walk-on role to clearly tell the lead character, “You’ve been served”, handing over a manila envelope before walking off into the sunset. Wever, in one the best slapstick scenes of the film, allows me to cross that off my list: hers is the only one we ever need to see again.

It would be too simplistic to read Marriage Story as an autobiographical blow-by-blow from Baumbach. It’s too rich a film, steeped in deadpan one-liners and characters so messy they careen out of the frame like a complicated family-themed pinball machine. There are (unsurprisingly) allusions to the filmography of Ingmar Bergman – a framed profile of the couple in happier days is titled “Scenes From a Marriage” – and Baumbach has cited Persona as an influence, but the drama is cushioned by elements of screwball comedy. Much like Baumbach’s debut feature Kicking and Screaming (1995), the dialogue is scattershot and perfectly of its time. In one scene, Nicole, in David Bowie garb, is hit on by a trustafarian-looking dude who tells her with no hint of irony, “Y’know, the Japanese are making really interesting tequilas right now.”

We’re left with all the makings of an epic musical. It’s only fair then, that Nicole and Charlie literally belt out their own tunes, songs for new ways of living. Both are from Stephen Sondheim’s beloved 1970 musical Company. Nicole, flanked by her mother and sister, dizzily performs “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, a boisterous three-parter about escaping the charms of a toxic beau; Charlie, meanwhile, is given (somewhat unfairly, a small gripe) the gift of showstopper “Being Alive”, a song so full of profundity that it very nearly topples into an emotional abyss. Driver knocks it out of the park.

In some ways, Marriage Story feels more like D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, a 1970 documentary of the soundtrack recording, than the polished musical. It’s a warts-and-all  behind-the-scenes peer inside relationship realities, a making-of of two people, irreversibly linked but forever changed. Sondheim was said to have never been happy with “Being Alive” as the musical’s finale, describing it as “a cop-out”, and Baumbach wisely chooses not to leave us with a similar orchestral climax. Nicole and Charlie are dealing with the big issues, sure, but, in the words of another song from Company, it’s the little things you do together.

 

Marriage Story is in limited theatrical release from November 14, streaming on Netflix from December 6.

Kate Jinx

Kate Jinx is a writer, critic and film curator. She is the director of programming at Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema and appears regularly on ABC TV’s The Mix. @katejinx

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Photograph by Wilson Webb

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