Marriage Story suggests another classic for the oxymoron hall of fame, right up there with “firm tofu” and “Vox insight”: The self-negating phrase underlying the movie is “amicable divorce.” An hour and a half into the film, as the lead characters were screaming, “You put me through hell” and punching the walls and wishing each other dead, I longed for the relative tranquility of Brawl in Cell Block 99.
The Brooklyn-born filmmaker Noah Baumbach has admirably stuck close to home — making movies about Brooklyn filmmakers, critics, actors, artists, novelists — and mostly resisted the lure of Hollywood, though his résumé does contain a credit for writing Madagascar 3. Before he turned 30, he made two of my favorite films of the Nineties, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997), but recent efforts such as Mistress America (2015) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) have also been full of deeply considered characters and wise, witty dialogue.
Marriage Story, which is playing at the New York Film Festival ahead of a limited theatrical release on November 6 and which hits Netflix on December 6, is a slight disappointment. This time Baumbach’s comic riffs are so-so (a long, farcical scene about serving divorce papers doesn’t quite come off), and as for the endless, grueling divorce, well . . . You know that friend who got divorced and wants to tell you all about the sofa and how he really wanted that sofa but okay it wasn’t really his sofa because she bought it but he kinda had possession of the sofa for this many years . . . and the more he talks the less you want to be in the room? There’s a scene like that in the movie. There are a lot of scenes like that in the movie, only Baumbach thinks they’re fascinating, or at least revealing, when what they are is excruciating. Marriage Story is modeled on the work of Ingmar Bergman, and probably should therefore carry a warning label.
Baumbach indicated at a press screening that he considers Marriage Story “a love story.” But it’s a divorce story. After a lovely opening sequence in which we learn, via voiceover and montage, about the sweetly endearing personality quirks of Charlie (Adam Driver), an avant-garde theater director in Brooklyn, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), his actress wife who was once well-known for taking her top off in a teen movie, the hammer falls. What we have just heard are letters the couple have each written to a therapist, and not the kind who heals couples. No, Nicole and Charlies have already decided to divorce and all that remains is for them to sort everything out with kindness and wisdom, neither wanting to hurt the other. Enter the lawyers.
Nicole gets an acting gig on a TV show in L.A. and, after being nudged to make the best deal for herself and Henry, her and Charlie’s eight-year-old son, settles into the couch of an expensively clad viper played by Laura Dern. In a trice, the amicability recedes to approximately the level of the battle of Verdun. Charlie tries to choose peace by rejecting a maniacally aggressive $850-an-hour divorce shark (Ray Liotta is very funny in a couple of brief scenes) and instead chooses a kindly but clueless semi-retired softy (Alan Alda) who charges a mere $450 per hour. For this sum he appears capable only of being outfoxed by the Dern character.
Once the lawyers come in, the movie is just a tumble down the steps into Divorce Block 99. There is no balance with happier days, no gratitude for the things this couple has shared, just the cinematic equivalent of an air-raid siren. Warning: Do. Not. Get. Divorced. But since you can never be sure your partner won’t dump you, really, you shouldn’t get married. Or fall in love in the first place. Best bet: Don’t be born. Getting hit with such a snootful of mega-misery is not necessarily what I’m looking for in a relationship movie. I don’t find catharsis here. All I see is a kind of cinematic therapy session.
Baumbach, a director who is in a long-term relationship with one actress (Greta Gerwig) and divorced from another (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who did indeed divorce him in L.A. and with whom he did have a son, may be exorcising some demons here. (Leigh was once known for taking her top off in a teen movie.) But his usual gift for sparkling comic dialogue and sharp-witted observation is in evidence only sporadically. Towards the end he suggests parting clouds by having each of his theater-folk leads perform a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, but the choice is dissonant. Company was about a man who felt isolated because he was too emotionally guarded to connect with anyone. That isn’t the situation in Marriage Story, which is about the perils of extracting oneself from a close bond. The singer in Sondheim’s “Being Alive” pleads, ‘Somebody . . . put me through hell.” The song applies to Charlie only if he is thinking in bitterly ironic terms, but he’s not that kind of guy. Having just been through hell, Charlies would hardly be in the mood to go back.