My parents are not divorced, nor have I ever been divorced. But based on my non-first hand opinion, there’s no greater cinematic chronicler of divorce than writer-director Noah Baumbach.
Baumbach, of course, directed 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, a fictionalized version of his parents’ divorce, told through the eyes of the couple’s two sons. His film two years ago, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), wasn’t about divorce per se, but it did touch on the legacies of various divorces in the pasts of the characters.
Now there’s Marriage Story, in which Baumbach once again tackles the subject head-on. The film has been on the festival circuit throughout the fall – I saw it at the Philadelphia Film Festival at the end of October – and it heads to theaters in early November before hitting Netflix on December 6.
Here’s the ‘Story’
The film tells the story of a couple, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) who had already split up by the start of the film. We find them in the middle of a bi-coastal custody battle over their 8-year-old son, whom actress Nicole wants to bring to Los Angeles, while theater director Charlie would prefer to keep him in New York.
As is well known among those who follow such things, Baumbach himself got divorced a few years ago from Jennifer Jason Leigh and has since taken up with actress and director Greta Gerwig. So it’s natural to see parallels: Charlie, like Baumbach, is a director. Nicole, like Leigh, is an actress, who was in a popular teen movie, and resumed her acting career post-divorce. The real-life couple, like the fictional one, has one young son.
There are differences – Charlie and Nicole are much younger, they’re less famous, and they’re people of the theater world rather than movies. Baumbach has said that he got some ideas for the film from friends of his who have gone through divorces, rather than merely his own experience.
While I’d absolutely love to read Jennifer Jason Leigh’s review of Marriage Story, or even for her to make a rebuttal film of her own, Baumbach has not used the film to settle scores with his ex or try to make himself the hero of the story. If he had, it’s hard to imagine anything more insufferable.
But Baumbach is a filmmaker, and not the host of a men’s rights YouTube channel. So instead of that, he’s made a film that’s notably even-handed, and makes both of the characters look great or terrible at different times. I’d imagine many people watching the film will believe it leans too far to one side or the other, but that’s going to be in the eye of the beholder.
That’s only part of the genius of Marriage Story. Yes, it’s very heart-wrenching at times, especially in a scene – reminiscent of that one Sopranos season finale where Tony and Carmela split up – in which the characters yell the meanest things they can at each other. Just for those parts, I’m not sure this is one that I’ll be watching multiple times once it hits Netflix.
But it’s also quite funny, and it gets one thing especially right: These are Theater People. I’ve known Theater People, and these characters act like theater people do. And when Theater People break up, this is what it’s like.
It all leads up to the ingenious decision to have Driver-as-Charlie sing “Being Alive,” the final song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. It works, and not only because Driver is a better singer than you thought.
If you’re not familiar with Company, it’s a show about one single man, Bobby, whose friends are all married to each other, and constantly urging him to find a girl and settle down. The song at the end is Bobby acknowledging that maybe he should. Marriage Story instead adapts these same lyrics to a guy coming out of a long divorce process and it totally works!
…based on my non-first hand opinion, there’s no greater cinematic chronicler of divorce…
(Between this, an upcoming Broadway revival, and Documentary Now‘s amazing parody, Original Cast Album Co-op, and now Marriage Story, it’s been quite a year for Company. How about a movie adaptation, finally?)
The acting, meanwhile, is some of the best work by everyone involved, from the leads to Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer to Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as Charlie’s.
Divorce isn’t a fun topic under any circumstances. But when it comes to it, Noah Baumbach knows of which he speaks, and he’s made one of his best films.