Noah Baumbach has made his least bad movie with Marriage Story. If it was better — if it honestly depicted the emotional promises made and then broken by two people — it would have been titled Divorce Story, repurposing the same material as Baumbach’s most acclaimed film, The Squid and the Whale (2001), the semi-autobiographical story of his parents’ break-up. That was a drab, bitter affair that somehow captured both the narcissism and insecurities of Millennial reviewers.
Now Baumbach extends sour reminiscence into further self-centeredness, a plot that evokes his adulthood: the divorce of a director and his actress-wife.
Avant-garde theater impresario Charles Barber (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are contemporary figures celebrated in New York Times and Time-Out write-ups, but they live out the middle-class sexual license of the previous century. While other Baumbach films (Frances Ha, Greenberg) imitated the indie mumblecore movement, this one is even more bourgeois, deliberately evoking Seventies and Eighties landmarks Scenes from a Marriage, Blume in Love, Shoot the Moon, The Woman Next Door, Smash Palace, even Stephen Sondheim’s Company — but without the sharpness and acuity of those works, just male sentimentality and female neurosis.
Marriage Story falls short of its models because it doesn’t reflect contemporary — Millennial — problems surrounding intimacy. Hence, Baumbach’s reluctance to call the movie what it is. Instead of confronting personal experience, he emulates others — his betters — thanks to his unique position as an inveterate culture-vulture and social-climber.
Keeping within the proper bounds of criticism, one can note that Baumbach’s personal inspiration in Marriage Story is interesting only for its private delusions, which pass for contemporary mores. The film’s title suggests that while Baumbach attempts self-revelation, he is also prevaricating. It’s a particular tendency of the privileged Boomer: self-aggrandizement and self-dramatization. This unfunny comedy is not about marriage any more than Michael Haneke’s unpleasant Amor was about love.
Make-believe, a filmmaker’s prerogative, is why Baumbach’s films never attract the public despite habitual media acclaim. Marriage Story can’t disguise Baumbach’s real interest in celebrating how the elite class makes excuses for themselves — as in Kramer vs. Kramer, it uses a preschool child as an emotional pawn. Here, the kid (Azhy Robertson) performs Baumbach’s regular scatology routine.
This is Baumbach’s least-bad movie only because the quality of the performances is improved. The non-mumblecore supporting cast — Julie Hagerty, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, and Laura Dern — define idiosyncratic types who circle the disaster of divorce. They’re detached predators played just short of satire. (Liotta’s sharp-eyed, blustering attorney matches Dern’s bitchy one; he just doesn’t get to deliver a blasphemous, condescending speech on women’s rights.)
It’s Johansson and Driver who suffer Baumbach’s superficiality. These refugees from Avengers and Star Wars, respectively, show “serious” angst — even bloodletting — to flatter the emotional confusion of those still traumatized by The Squid and the Whale. A boatload of Oscar nominations will surely result because divorce, narcissism, and box-office stars are Hollywood’s favorite subjects. But these lead performances lack insight, originality, and depth.
It can’t be forgotten that Jennifer Jason Leigh in such films as Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Kansas City, Georgia, Rush, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Miami Blues uncannily defined selfless expression. On her own, the ex–Mrs. Baumbach was the key actress of American anxieties in the Nineties while Johansson merely plays a nubile Maxim-magazine bimbo who performs Electra under the guidance of her McArthur Grant “genius” husband.
Competition chafes them both, causing their friction and separation. This story is really about class rivalry clouded by a sex-and-cinema surface. When Nicole tells Charles, “You make me want to peel my skin off,” the line copies Ingmar Bergman, whose searing recriminations, derived from August Strindberg, went deep, past moviegoers’ defenses, and struck a nerve. Driver’s boyish pout opposes Johansson’s drama-queen misery, but Baumbach is just playing house.
Both exes perform songs from Sondheim’s Company, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and “Being Alive.” These formerly acidic numbers become about self-pity (Fiona Apple or Radiohead or Lauryn Hill would be more authentic), but the unlikely Sondheim is a more pompous, social-climbing choice.
Baumbach’s best borrowed technique is cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s imitation of Sven Nykvist’s lighting and visual texture, but this, too, is just affectation. The obnoxious sentimentality of Marriage Story forces a filmmaker’s self-righteousness on us. Netflix premiered Marriage Story at New York’s once-tony Paris Theater (where Woody Allen met Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall), and the obvious point is to present the fallacies of the educated class with approval from our ruling, corporate elite.