Movies about marriages – which are usually about divorces – are hardly new. In the 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood produced a slew of comedies about couples divorcing and then getting back together, and they were not trivial. They took on questions of truth, honesty and changing circumstances. Adam’s Rib from 1949 has Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as two married lawyers fighting over marriage equality. Later came the vicious Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Kramer vs. Kramer, and a bunch of the now-disgraced Woody Allen’s movies about marriage.
All this goes to say that in the long history of movies about marriage and divorce, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is among the least of them – despite the praise heaped upon the picture by many of my coastal colleagues. It’s unfortunate that early on in Marriage Story, there’s a book on a shelf with the title of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s a reminder of what Marriage Story is not.
Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are married with a young son. They’re theater folks – Charlie writes and directs avant garde productions in New York, and his latest play is going to Broadway. Nicole acts in Charlie’s plays. When the movie opens, they’re off-screen describing one another in gracious terms, but when you see them, they’re sitting far apart in a mediator’s office, and he’s had them write about what they used to like in each other.
As cold as they may seem here, things get worse. Nicole moves to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot for a TV series, so there’s a custody fight. They get lawyers and so it goes.
But Marriage Story is much more an imitation of life than an examination. It doesn’t illuminate things; instead the film recounts the kinds of moments and conversations that sound familiar. You might watch the film and nod as it checks off familiar patterns of divorces – familiar both from life and from movies.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the husband and wife rip at each other until they finally get to the terrible shared loss that has left them so incapable of forgiving and accepting each other. In their one real fight, Nicole and Charlie sound like a self-help book, as they go on about what they feel they’ve lost or sacrificed. It’s the usual stuff. The one-time conversations have any juice is when the two lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern) both full-out sharks, put their various interpretation on how the marriage has gone.
But most of Marriage Story is too pleasant and timid to get an audience to see or feel anything new. It’s sad and it’s too bad – and so what?
In 2012, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won a best foreign film Oscar for his movie A Separation. That divorce took in Iran’s class and religious divides, male power in Iran, and left the 12-year old daughter in the terrible throes of having to make a choice between parents. The kid in Marriage Story is terminally gorgeous – like the son in Kramer vs Kramer – and you never get any full sense that the divorce has affected him much at all. The movie feels like an argument over convenience, not about what may be fundamental to the lives of Nicole and Charlie. It’s a marriage story lite.
It’s also noteworthy that in the present moment, when the movie business, and American society, are in ferment over questions of race and women’s rights, that Nicole repeatedly gets the short end of the stick from Marriage Story, and the only people of color are safely tucked away in the background.