DIR/WRI: Noah Baumbach • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Jennifer Lame • DES: Jade Healy • PRO: Noah Baumbach, Leslie Converse, David Heyman • MUS: Randy Newman • CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Wever, Adam Driver
It’s already well documented that this is much more a divorce story, as writer director Noah Baumbach utilises the dissolution of one relationship to rail against an entire industry set up to profit from marital breakdowns. Naturally, Noah is far too reserved to actually howl against the very real business of divorce in America but he does steep the entire film in a palpable air of anguish and occasionally anger. Mercifully he doesn’t exclude humour from the mix and it’s that seam that makes the bleak bearable and the characters warm enough to root for.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play an agonisingly hip theatre couple, ostensibly happy in New York, but the fault-lines in their relationship turn into chasms when Scarlet’s character Nicole moves to her hometown of LA to shoot a TV pilot. Divorce proceedings start in a civilised manner with an apparent pact to not lawyer-up and an expressed desire to remain friends during an amiable division where their child is the mutual priority. This film suggests that these good intentions simply curdle in the adversarial culture of American divorce and so it comes to pass – a gradual ramping up results in each side siccing their own legal Rottweilers on the other. The rival attorneys, as depicted deftly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, pass as personable, seductively reasonable and even sympathetic to the other side. And yet the creeping drift into costly trench warfare is painfully inevitable.
I wasn’t personally paying enough, or frankly any attention to Bambauch’s private life prior to seeing this film. So I didn’t know that he has been through a divorce in recent years. Naturally, he must be mining his experiences and collated observations here but he is at pains to be balanced and depict both parties fairly and warmly. Giving each character equal agency and air though can’t dismiss the notion that his sympathies tilt at a discernible point in the direction of Driver’s character Charlie. The theatre director’s initial dazed bemusement gradually slides into utter disdain for the process itself and its complicit practitioners. Even the cuddliest lawyer of the bunch, played with immense grace by Alan Alda, isn’t immune to a tongue-lashing from Charlie who rightly assumes every moment is at his expense. The lawyers’ giddy excitement at where to order lunch literally turns Charlie’s stomach.
Though attracting raves everywhere, the film is often as imperfect as the people it portrays. Like all auteurs with any modicum of autonomy, Baumbach has pushed the running time to patience and bladder testing extremes. At certain points, one might wonder if we are watching this divorce in real time. 136 minutes might not sound long these days but dwell on the fact that it’s a film about a testing, stressful divorce, not a Marvel film with twenty five minutes of credits.
Equally, however heartfelt and organic the emotions, the film falls into the trap of often mistaking arguments for drama. Spending time in the company of bickering couples is low on everyone’s priority list in real life. Expecting us to seek it out at the cinema seems wildly optimistic from the filmmakers. And finally the film never quite sheds the ambience of the ‘improv space’ as if weeks of character work has been transported in from some black-box rehearsal room without some judicious pruning. And a final warning, Marriage Story joins the pantheon of super awkward first-date movies. Don’t get fooled by the jaunty poster of two beaming movie stars. Anyone wandering in expecting a rom-com may get a rude awakening.
That said, here is a list of some of the film’s many attributes. It’s raw, honest, heartfelt, compassionate, sensitive, tender, touching, witty and charming. Praise be to any film hitting these heights and plumbing these depth simultaneously. Hats off to all involved.
15A (see IFCO for details)
Marriage Story is released 15th November 2019