Like royals in Shakespeare of the French bourgeois measured by Rohmer, the characters of “Marriage Story” are vessels who have the leisure, the cultural room, to consider larger moral quandaries, to consider, to contemplate, and perhaps to tear each other into smaller and smaller pieces with verbal alacrity and whimsical irresponsibility. In his eleventh fiction feature as director, Noah Baumbach follows that classical dramatic pattern to comedic ends but also vividly devastating effect. Sweet and bittersweet are seldom so compellingly pushed together.
Baumbach is a movie director partnered with an actress and filmmaker, the son of a film critic and a novelist, and he cautions viewers against reading his work as pure autobiography as he transposes the inspirations of his own life and prior marriage and those of friends and acquaintances in his artistic world to that of a downtown theater director, Charlie (Adam Driver), and Nicole, his actress wife (Scarlett Johansson). Baumbach, who began releasing movies early but once spent seven or eight years between films, justifiably swings for the fences toward the sort of indelible work that could be as memorable as great 1970s films from around the world, where actors pitted against actors elevated emotion from bonfire to burning buildings. For the movie’s assembly of close-ups of characters, Baumbach cites Bergman’s “Persona.” And in the press notes, Baumbach says the work is portmanteau, “a thriller, a legal procedural, a romantic comedy, a screwball comedy, a tragic love story, even a musical.” Referencing scenes in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” Baumbach notes, “When you watch a thriller, you’re aware that every little thing is a clue that might come back later.” (Is there a Woody Allen influence in the background? “Kramer vs. Kramer” may be a safer antecedent to mention.)
“Marriage Story” has naysayers, as well as notes from some shallow doofuses. “Here’s the problem and I hope I’m not alone in this: I am simply running out of empathy for fictional characters who live in New York and Los Angeles, have a lot of money and work in the arts,” reads a loathsome thumbsucker in British GQ, penned by a contributor whose November postings included “Chemical peels are on the up for men.” “It’s not that these people can’t have problems—of course they can—the issue is whether these problems are the ones that, when committed to film, say the most about modern society. I would argue that they do not, that the experiences of two artists and the complications of a bicoastal divorce are not the mirror society needs at this time.” (If only the thing were not the thing, but another thing.)
The mystery that simmers above the tribulations of Baumbach’s Charlie and Nicole is why they would separate or strike a spike into whatever they have, including their eight-year-old child, and that is one of the film’s great strengths. They’re not logical. Their conflicts are not logical. Yes, these two belong together, they are ideal, they dovetail, they are fated, and yet: their skin itches at merest proximity. (She has the greatest cause: he’s a mad controller.) There’s the slightest tipping of the scale to the male character among the rivers of emotion— there are passages less “he said, she said,” than “he said, he said”—but that doesn’t diminish the portraiture. Emotional highs and lows, comedy and self-forced tragedy alternate. He’s an off-Broadway director; she’s an actress who left the movies to be his onstage light. Of course their impassioned travails will begin at coruscating and rise from there to the marvels of human melodrama. Their disputes, cannily, are blocked as if in early form of stage choreography. And their rages are, to the observer, enraging. (How dare you, etcetera.)
Like the raft of performances, including from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn, the technical credits are impeccable: cinematography by Robbie Ryan (“The Meyerowitz Stories,” “American Honey,” “The Favourite,” “Wuthering Heights”), production designer Jade Healy (“A Ghost Story,” “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood”), costume designer Mark Bridges (“Miller’s Crossing,” “Phantom Thread,” “Joker”) and an inspired score by Randy Newman. 136m. (Ray Pride)
“Marriage Story” is at the Music Box on 35mm; Renaissance Place, Highland Park; and on Netflix on December 6.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.