First published on Firstpost on September 13, 2019. 

Most of Noah Baumbach’s films can be described, in one way or another, as “marriage stories”: his scripts are often set in the margins of marital or romantic strife, burrowing into the cracks that develop before, after, and around a souring relationship.

In his masterful The Squid and the Whale, two young boys come to terms with the acrimonious separation of their parents; in While We’re Young, the nostalgic allure of youth tests a midlife-crisis-ridden marriage; both Margot at the Wedding and The Meyerowitz Stories feature a divorcee (or an about-to-be divorcee) caught in a complex, anguished nexus of familial dysfunction.

This makes Baumbach’s latest film, Marriage Story, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, both familiar and new. It’s the story of two New York artists (autobiographical archetypes that Baumbach frequently satirises in his work) undergoing a divorce. But this time, Baumbach steps away from the sidelines and enters the fray.

Marriage Story unfolds right in the middle of a marriage as it falls apart, zeroing in on the two people caught up in it and the havoc the process wreaks on their perceptions of themselves. The result is a film that’s more focused and raw than any of the writer-director’s previous work, but also much less complex and layered. The meandering asides, hyper-specific neuroses, and unsaid resentments through which Baumbach’s characters typically reveal themselves are substituted in Marriage Story for the simpler, broader strokes of shouting matches and heartfelt letters.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is the director of an avant-garde theater company in New York; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actor in his troupe. Their careers have grown together over the years, although who benefited from whom is a bone of contention. Now, Charlie’s Male Genius reputation overshadows Nicole, who comes to realize that she’s put her own dreams on hold to help realise her husband’s. When she receives a lucrative offer to do a TV show in Los Angeles, where she’s originally from and has always wanted to live, Charlie responds by ridiculing her (“I don’t watch TV,” he says at one point while watching TV) and refusing to leave New York. It serves as the push Nicole needs to realise that it’s time to leave and start her life anew — to “have a piece of Earth that’s finally mine,” as she puts it in a bravado monologue. 

By the time Marriage Story begins, all this is already in the past and the separation has been initiated. The subject of the film isn’t why they’re parting, but how, exactly. How do they protect their sweet, but demanding 7-year-old son, Henry, from the drastic changes that are bound to ensue? How do they divide their lives across two far-apart coasts? And most significantly, how do they reconcile the fact that they still genuinely care for each other with the realization that they make for a deeply unhappy couple? Charlie insists upon the fantasy of an amicable breakup, navigated with therapists instead of lawyers, but Nicole realises that extricating her life from Charlie’s requires a more clear-eyed and unsentimental approach. She fires the first shot, hiring celebrity lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) to fight her case.

Marriage Story hunkers down on what Baumbach has described in interviews as the “divorce-industrial complex”—a dehumanising bureaucratic process which reduces something as intimate as a separation into a series of arbitrary rules and exorbitant courtroom battles. Late to the game, Charlie is forced to confront the confounding nitty-gritty of divorce law. Since Nicole files for divorce while in Los Angeles, Charlie can only contest her in the same city. If Charlie doesn’t visit Los Angeles often, he looks like a neglectful parent, and if he does visit, he weakens the case to move his son back to New York. If he doesn’t respond in 30 days, he concedes by default; he also has to pay 30% of Nicole’s lawyer fees. Most insidiously, he can’t use any lawyer Nicole has already consulted — and on Nora’s orders, she meets with eleven of the best to ensure that she has the upper-hand. 

Not only do these legal back-and-forths form the most insightful parts of the film, but they also yield some of its best performances and lines — especially from Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers. Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, an elderly lawyer who impresses Charlie with his ability to bring genuine empathy to the divorce process. Alda is gentle and firm in the role, gracefully delivering some of the film’s most profound aphorisms (“divorce is like death without a body”).

However, as the fancy Hollywood lawyer Nora, Dern is the true scene-stealer of Marriage Story — she is both tender and sharklike, evoking the best of her performance in Big Little Lies. In an unforgettable scene, she lets loose a diatribe about the unfair judging of mothers in divorce cases, castigating God as the ultimate absent father; “He didn’t even do the fucking,” she says.

Charlie and Nicole claim that their marriage has always been bad — then why do they insist on being so good to each other? Where do their affections stem from? We never truly grasp their story beyond the broad contours of a domineering male artist and a muse-cum-wife struggling for independence. When they go at each other’s throats, it’s the cliched complaints: you never loved me, you rushed me into this, you used me, etc. It feels like a template of a disintegrating marriage, designed to be broadly relatable, rather than the nuanced, eccentric, even rancorous portraits of relationships (romantic or otherwise) that we’ve come to expect from Baumbach. 

More troublingly, the script seems to give Nicole the short end of the stick. We dwell in Charlie’s world, seeing him in all his faults and virtues: he is woefully oblivious, so adamant to have his way that he can’t even acknowledge that his son is actually happier in LA. And yet, he’s a wonderfully caring father, a great boss and director to his theater troupe, and a self-made man whose abusive childhood has made him stubborn in his desire for a certain kind of family life. With Nicole, however, there’s much left unexplored.

It’s never fully explained why she so wants to move to LA, what her ambitions are, or what influence her TV actress mother — who dotes on Charlie, much to Nicole’s chagrin — have had on her. The film makes the same folly as Charlie: it refuses to consider Nicole beyond her grievances with him, effectively reducing her to an extension of her husband.

Marriage Story is nevertheless an intensely watchable film, whether due to Driver and Johansson’s earnest performances and onscreen charm, or Baumbach’s ability to capture urban spaces (New York and Los Angeles, in this case) with evocative detail. But it’s also a slight and sometimes bland film, whose protagonists never truly get under your skin. Ultimately, the film is more compelling as an account not of love, but of its absorption into the language of law — i.e, as a “divorce story” rather than a “marriage story.”