Marriage Story is authentic and messy

Noah Baumbach’s divorce film, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, takes huge chances – most of which pay off.

Long before someone asks for a divorce, the word lingers in the peripheries of the relationship like the quickening flames of a soon-to-be out-of-control fire. If a wedding were a seemingly unending series of negotiations rather than a one-night event, it, too, might become a living hell.

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a story of divorce. The film opens as our soon-to-be-uncoupled leads sit in therapy trying to list things about each other they still love about each other (or, at least, once loved). The film examines the rupture trauma of divorce, even if it focuses on one that begins relatively amicably. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as the separating couple. Once upon a time, they were in love. Now, they’re battling over custody and coasts (their lives oscillate between New York and her native California, a significant point of contention in their lives pre- and post-separation).

While the film attempts to find balance in telling both sides of the story, many critics have already suggested that the film feels somewhat preferential to Adam Driver’s end. On the one hand, this seems unsurprising. In spite of Baumbach’s protests, it’s difficult not to read the film as somewhat autobiographical in terms of his marriage and divorce. 

On the surface, Driver comes across as more likeable. His character has had room to grow as a person. He has figured out who he is beyond the confines of the couple. His unwillingness to compromise his sense of self is one of the many threads that have pulled the marriage apart. Yet Driver is merely a more charismatic and less overtly awful scumbag in a history of Baumbach scumbags. If anything, Driver’s likeability as an actor might work against the film. Unlike someone such as Jeff Daniels from The Squid and the Whale, who is so more obviously a scumbag that it makes it near-impossible to imagine that the filmmaker is endorsing his behaviour, Driver has a swagger that obscures selfish actions.

Johansson’s character, on the other hand, has never had this room to grow as a person. If her speeches about feminism feel like they’re being tried on, it’s because they are. Her role in the marriage has, up to this point, been in service of her husband and her child. The relationship swallowed her whole, and she’s only just beginning to find herself again. Rather than be dismissive of this experience, the film feels honest in how she struggles to affirm a sense of self. She might not be traditionally sympathetic, but the film becomes attuned to her self-effacing experience.

While Marriage Story is often painful to watch, it’s also surprisingly funny. For every scene that makes you suck in your breath, crushed by emotional brutality, there is another moment or scene that will leave you laughing. The comedy of the film helps create, for better and for worse, a comfortable distance. It allows the audience to step back from the carnage of a failed marriage and have a breather, even as the character’s suffering feels relentless. The absurdity of bureaucracy and divorce especially are treated with comic gloves and the star-studded supporting cast, which includes Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, supply much of the film’s humour. 

As one of the year’s heavy-hitters rich in cinematic references, the film has already drawn comparisons to movies like Kramer vs Kramer and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. Considering how few films exist about divorce, it’s unsurprising that the critics have filtered their examinations of the film through their interpretation of other films. Another movie that comes to mind — though Baumbach does not make overt reference to it and we can’t assume he’s seen it — is Nadav Lapid’s mid-length feature From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer. The film explores the work of a wedding photographer recreating the same perfect sea-side photos for different married couples. Bookended by the failed recording of a wedding, the nervous wedding videographer mistakes the “red” record button on his camera for a stoplight. Rather than capture the cutting of the cake or the couple’s first dance, he captures the ceiling, bored family members, people’s feet: the in-betweens. 

The wedding, built up as the most important moment in these couple’s lives, becomes just a blip in the reality of marriage. Marriage, rather than these significant momentous events, is represented as banal protracted time. To a certain extent, all weddings are the same, and all marriages in all their boring endlessness are different. 

Good films about marriage and divorce are about time. Subjective time rules in a marriage, whether happy or sad. The good times pass by quickly, and the bad times chug along at a glacial pace. If you are in a bad relationship, the longer you’ve settled into it, the more difficult it is to extract yourself. Time even has the power to transform the past. More so than the action of divorce, the passage of time is what destroys what we can imagine was once a happy marriage in Baumbach’s film. Even happy memories are tainted as characters wonder if they ever loved each other. Was their marriage opportunism, rushed, irrational and little more than a simple mistake? While the film does jump around in time, it rarely gives insight into the good days. With two unreliable and increasingly bitter characters who no longer connect to that old life as if it happened to different people, we too feel that they might never have been good at all, even if reason tells us otherwise. If love isn’t felt in the present might as well cease to exist entirely.

Marriage Story often feels like a film about ruins. There is evidence of a strong and sturdy past, but all that is left are shadows. It’s a movie about moving on rather than sitting still and has transformative explosiveness that initiates change, even as characters resist the inevitable. As a film, it might not please all audiences; some might find it too glib and neurotic, while others might find the suffering unbearable and hollow. It’s a film that sits on a razor’s edge of greatness, taking risks that might not quite work but always feel authentic and messy. ■

Marriage Story opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 22 and hits Netflix on Dec. 6. Watch the trailer here: