Noah Baumbach is one of America’s finest filmmakers. He scored an Oscar nomination for writing “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005 and now is being touted for “Marriage Story.”
Although stagier and less subtle than his work on 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding,” 2014’s “While We’re Young” and 2017’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” (which the Academy unjustly overlooked), “Marriage Story” deserves its share of praise. It showcases a great performance by Adam Driver as Charlie, a self-absorbed artist, and is built on a screenplay that brilliantly reflects society’s unfair expectations of women.
Putting aside the real life marriage/divorce of Baumbach and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, the movie follows a theatrical couple calling on lawyers (excellently played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) to help them call it quits. Of course, the break could have been avoided had Charlie supported his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as she supported him.
Nicole’s move out from Charlie’s shadow is shown through her physicality. He prefers her to have long hair but she’s more comfortable with a short cut. She appears more assertive when she’s dressed as David Bowie and most content when, another Halloween later, she goes as John Lennon. It’s not that Nicole wants to be a man, she wants equal opportunities—like ultimately becoming a director in a male-dominated industry.
Yet before Nicole finds herself, she and Charlie find themselves fighting for custody of their son (Azhy Robertson), who looks like Danny Torrance from “The Shining” and seems way too big for a carseat.
The latter observation is less bothersome than some of Baumbach’s other choices. Unlike his direction on previous films that appeared effortless and invisible, “Marriage Story” reveals too much sleight of hand. In addition to Randy Newman’s obtrusive score, the editing of a pivotal argument scene is choppy and mismatched.
Even more awkward is a close-up of Dern removing her red pumps to reveal her bare feet. It’s jarring, objectifies her, and seems more Quentin Tarantino than Noah Baumbach. Fortunately, the tone and talents of the latter writer/director reemerge when Dern delivers this speech to Nicole:
“Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago. Before that, fathers were expected to be silent and absent and unreliable and selfish…We love them for their fallibilities, but people absolutely don’t accept those same failings in mothers…Because the basis of our Judeo-Christian-Whatever is Mary, Mother of Jesus. And she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth!…And the dad isn’t there. He didn’t even do the fucking. God is in heaven. God is the father and God didn’t show up! 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. And it’s fucked-up but that is the way it is.”
With insight and wit, Baumbach addresses the patriarchy’s double standard. “Marriage Story” doesn’t just depict the love and loss of two people, it acknowledges the unrealistic demands put on all women in all walks of life.
Image: Dern and Johansson courtesy of Netflix. “Marriage Story” is available for streaming on Netflix and showing in select theaters.