Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is a heartbreaking AU in which actress Gena Rowlands divorces her director husband John Cassavetes in order to move to LA and further her film acting career. Kidding, it’s a fluorescent law procedural detailing the absurdly high expenses, both financial and emotional, that unjustly come along with divorce. No, really, it’s a deconstruction of the apocryphal myth that the perfect parent, the perfect marriage, and the perfect career all exist.
Okay, let’s compromise and say Marriage Story is all of these things at once. Except maybe that first one, though it’s not as ridiculous of a reach as it may sound. The staging and direction are jam-packed with influences derived from mid-century art-house cinema, from the raw fervor of Cassavetes dramas to the florid, verbose monologues of Ingmar Bergman. In one scene, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) meets with divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), and their lengthy conversation is framed similarly to those famous profile shots from Persona (1966). It’s a nice allusion, but one that doesn’t really contribute anything story-wise. Is Baumbach suggesting that Nora and Nicole are one and the same, or that they’re fusing now as they share their stories, or that they’re complete opposites? None of these options really ring true.
But when he uses this technique to shoot conversations between Nicole and Charlie (Adam Driver), suddenly the themes of dual identity and loss of individual personality click into place. In order to foster a successful marriage, a couple must figure out how to fuse together in a way that doesn’t completely suffocate their own internal needs and wants. Historically, in heterosexual unions, the burden falls on the wife to sacrifice her career goals for her husband’s. In the US, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women could have their own bank accounts, and it took a decade more for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to pass, which gave single, widowed, or divorced women the right to legally apply for a credit card without requiring a man to co-sign it. How were they to leave their husbands and start a new life with no money and no agency?
None of this is lost on Nora, who unleashes a spot-on monologue about our society’s obsession with the so-called flawless mother. “So, you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be a fuck up and it doesn’t matter. You will always be held to a different, higher standard,” she states. “And it’s fucked up, but that’s the way it is.”
In a world where Baumbach doesn’t have his partner Greta Gerwig to read over his scripts and add a little feminist flair, this film might have suffered the same sexist pitfalls his pre-Gerwig works –– Kicking and Screaming (1995) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) –– have been prone to. However, both Nicole and Charlie are given relatively equal treatment, with the former even being represented as slightly more in the right. This is surprising considering Baumbach’s intimate connection to the material, as it’s based off of his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who, according to Baumbach, has seen and liked the film). This real world connection grounds the story, only coming untethered when the periphery characters come into play.
The supporting cast are almost all wacky, over-the-top caricatures: you have the high-powered “feminist” lawyer who preaches ~Girl Power~ while capitalizing off of suffering ala the insidious Lisa Bloom, the cheap-but-kind lawyer (Alan Alda), the expensive-and-dickish lawyer (Ray Liotta), the too-flirty mother-in-law (Julie Hagerty), and the members of Charlie’s theater company who seem to only speak in phony, expository dialogue. Make no mistake, the named actors are all brilliant, Merritt Wever as Nicole’s perpetually nervous sister in particular, and they all serve the noble purpose of providing much-needed comedic relief from the emotionally heavy story at the core –– it’s just that jumping from realism to camp and back again induces a touch of tonal whiplash.
But then again, such is life! Sometimes, the only way to cope with your soppy feelings is to stand up in front of all your friends and belt out a Sondheim number in its entirety, dialogue asides and all! The line between realism and camp is blurrier than it seems (see: every Rowlands performance ever), and it’s this particular intersection where undistilled emotion thrives. Because the thing is, for artists and the sensitive, real life is campy. Divorce really does feel like you’re standing up in front of all the people you care about, spotlight burning through your skin, a thousand eyes on you as you confess your most vulnerable loneliness and most personal failures. Full disclosure, I have no experience whatsoever with divorce, but this is what Marriage Story makes me imagine it feels like. And isn’t that one of the goals of cinema, and art in general? To transform one’s own personal story into something universal-adjacent? To articulate the minute complexities of life with primal authenticity rather than stringent veracity? To induce a collective amnesia that makes us all forget that Johansson chronically steals roles from the marginalized and vocally supports Woody Allen, just because she delivers one of the best performances of the year?
Okay, let’s compromise and say the goal is all of these things at once. Except maybe that last one, though it’s not as ridiculous of a reach as it may sound.