Ordinarily, a story that challenges a filmmaker can result in an exhilarating work. There is a sense of breakthrough that the audience can share. Masterpieces as diverse as Terence Malick’s Badlands and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters can start out confusingly, but feel fully resolved at the end. I don’t think Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story makes that journey successfully.
The pleasures it offers – in wit, graceful performances and wise insights into contemporary life – are considerable. We really come to like these people, and get to care about them. We don’t know yet why they’re getting a divorce, but we expect that to be cleared up as we watch the film. In that sense, the story of this divorcing couple, Charlie, played by Adam Driver, and Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, starts out with us more than eager to enjoy an emotionally involving experience. So why does the initial confusion remain at the end?
The first scene is a delightful distillation of what each of them likes about the other. Charlie, reading from his list, has only warm, appreciative thoughts about Nicole in their married life. Nicole is reliable, strong (she opens jars that he can’t) and a great mother. Nicole’s list of likes includes Charlie’s gentleness, his reliability and his attentiveness towards their eight year-old son, Henry. Then, Baumbach turns the tables cleverly: the list was just a mediator’s way of getting a separated couple back together. And it doesn’t work: not only won’t Nicole read hers aloud, she storms out of the session!
That’s when the real story – of their painful and wasteful divorce – actually begins. It starts with Nicole suddenly leaving the family’s New York apartment with Henry, and moving into her mother’s house in LA, where she grew up. Years before, she had been at the start of a movie career, with one minor soft-core credit. But she left that when she first met – and set her sights on – Charlie, who was an actor and director of a small, struggling off-broadway troupe. Nicole became the troupe’s major actress, and it gains a solid reputation under Charlie’s leadership. But now, with Henry settled into a stable childhood in Queens, Nicole suddenly takes him across the country to live with Grandma and aunt Cassie (Nicole’s younger sister, played by Merrit Wever). Charlie is shocked and confused; why is she doing this? The answer is Nicole’s been offered a role in a TV pilot in LA, and wants to re-start her own career.
Baumbach’s risk is that we have gotten to believe in these two people, played by two of the most appealing actors around, and that we’re ready to be entertained by seeing the situation play itself out. And he clues us in early about what to expect. After the mediation exercise, we see the people they both have relationships with – including the other actors in the troupe as well as Nicole’s mother (played by Julie Hagerty) and sister. Then we meet the lawyers who will cause them so much grief, played by Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. But we also find that all of these actors playing all of these characters, have something in common: they are all giving very skillful comic performances in a comedy, and are making us laugh. And that includes Azhy Robertson, as Henry, who is hilariously indifferent to his parents’ misery. So why, we may ask, do we stop laughing (for the most part) when we are left alone with the two stars of the film?
That’s where the confusion problem comes in. Nicole, and therefore, Johansson, is never really convincing as to why the divorce is necessary. Show business couples always have problems, and the intelligent ones get married and start families expecting that. Certainly Nicole and Charlie are intelligent, as well as talented. Eventually, however, we learn of the extent of their unspoken resentments and buried disappointments, and it’s not particularly pleasant, or funny. It includes Charlie’s one-time adultery with a member of the troupe.
Those feelings come out in scenes with their lawyers, both in conference, and before a judge. The biggest laughs come from how this trio of lawyers twist every one of their clients’ problems as due to victimization by the other. But, throughout it all, Driver and Johansson maintain expressions of deep confusion and hurt. We look at them, and the laughs are just chilled out of us.
The climax of the film – emotionally, anyway – is a face-to-face verbal brawl between them in Driver’s rented apartment in LA. Driver is enraged enough to punch a hole in the wall, and then to vilify her with such cruelty that he falls to his knees in shame, prompting her to embrace him in forgiveness.
While startling, and powerfully acted, I was unmoved. This was because, for all of the buried feelings and resentments that came out, the scene played out as an avoidance of the real issue – namely, why Nicole, who seemed to have so much love for Charlie, was so intent on breaking up the family. And that nothing Charlie could do could stop her.
The only plausible reason, at least for me, is that Nicole was pretty miserable living with Charlie, and the reason is obvious. It’s because Charlie was a vain, dominating, egomaniacal narcissist, and Nicole only became aware of this as she started to recognize those same qualities in herself. Once she did, she saw that she would never be truly happy until she moved out from under Charlie’s shadow and, at the risk of failure, tried to achieve the same kind of success as him.
No other explanation makes sense. Apparently, the event that triggered her decision was the offer of a role in a TV pilot. A TV Pilot?? I was being asked to believe that this happy marriage was being destroyed because of that? For anyone with the slightest knowledge of show business, the idea that a role in a TV Pilot does not entail an enormous risk is crazy. But Nicole was apparently willing to risk her own future – as well as her child’s – for the chance that it could lead to a successful career as an actress.
Sorry, but I just didn’t buy it. It would only make sense if she had developed, after many years of feeling inadequate and uncertain of her own talent, the kind of confidence to meet such a challenge. And, along with that, an awareness of just how much Charlie had always depended on her feelings of inadequacy, and just how important that was to his own success.
No doubt, Nicole would feel some gratitude to Charlie for his exploitation of her. After all, he became the model for her own growth. Still, the resentment that goes along with it would need to be shown. But Baumbach chose not to do that. We saw nothing of Charlie’s vanity and the enormity of his ambition; likewise, we saw almost nothing that suggested the resentment, the s-e-e-t-h-i-n-g frustration that Nicole must have felt, for nearly a decade, while watching Charlie’s career flourish, while hers lay moribund.
Instead, we saw how two loving, confused people were suffering terribly from her decision, and it was rather a sad spectacle. But this sadness was also confusing because it seemed so purposeless. In sum, I was disappointed that I wasn’t being shown the story that did make sense. That story would have shown two good actors playing characters who were driven by vanity and selfishness. I would surely have lost sympathy for both of them, but I’m pretty sure that the film would have been a lot funnier.