Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.
I’m not going to pull any punches at the start of this review so that you’re not left in any suspense. If you’ve seen Kramer vs. Kramer, there’s not a lot of new territory for you when it comes to Marriage Story. At one point in the movie, a divorce lawyer says something along the lines of criminal lawyers see bad people at their best and divorce lawyers see good people at their worst. This is a movie about a divorce, so the audience gets to fill in for the role of the divorce lawyers in this case. Worse, I’m not so sure that these are good people.
So yes, this is a story of divorce. It’s worth noting that one of the last times Noah Baumbach (who wrote and directed this) delved into the topic of divorce, the movie we got was the absolutely gutting The Squid and the Whale. It’s more of the same this time, only this time, there’s only one child, he’s younger, and the story is going to move between New York and L.A. At its heart, though, this is a story about two people doing everything they can to hurt each other emotionally and mentally. It’s unappealing at best. There’s a reason I’ve waited this long to watch it, and there’s a reason I saved one movie from last year’s Oscars to watch after this, so I didn’t end my 2019 Oscar watching on something that made me want to pull out my own spine.
We start with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) talking about what they like about the other person. Charlie lists off what makes Nicole special; she does the same. And then it turns out we’re sitting with two people about to get divorced. This is an exercise their mediator (Robert Smigel) has asked them to do, and now that they have written these lists, he wants them to read them to the other person. Nicole says she doesn’t want to, while Charlie is quite happy with his list. Nicole decides she’s had enough and she leaves. Brace yourself; this will be a theme.
Here’s the relevant information to take a deep dive into this splintering marriage. Charlie is a theater director in New York. He’s mildly successful at it in the sense that he makes a living at it. Nicole comes from a show business family and did films when she was younger, but has decided to work on the stage with her husband instead. They have a son named Henry (Azhy Robertson), who is probably about 8, but seems younger than that in a lot of respects. Part of the reason for the pending divorce is that Nicole suspects (rightly) that Charlie slept with the manager of his theater company. Another part is that she’s been offered a part in a pilot for a television series back in L.A. where her family is. And so, off she goes to L.A. with Henry while Charlie moves his latest production to Broadway.
And thus it goes. Despite deciding to make the divorce as amicable as possible and not use lawyers, Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern) to represent her, which forces Charlie to hire a lawyer. He vacillates between the kindly Bert (Alan Alda) and the high-powered and aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta). The lawyers make everyone’s lives terrible. Eventually the divorce happens.
So let’s talk about exactly what burns me about this movie, aside from the fact that these people are uniformly terrible. We’ll get to that in a minute. For starters, though let’s talk about that first meeting between Nicole and Nora. Nora’s entire point of the meeting is to take what was going to be an amicable divorce and just…point out reasons that Nicole should screw over her husband. In Charlie’s first meeting with Jay, the same thing happens, but the scene is played aggressively rather than sympathetically. Nora, based on the way the scene rolls, is supposed to be seen as a sort of divorce savior. Jay, based on the same thing, is an aggressive prick. The truth is that they’re both terrible. Even Bert, who is supposed to be this homespun and sweet guy, is blunt about just how much of a scam all of the process is, and exactly how much money he’s going to make off of Charlie’s pain.
Second, and I know this is personal, but I can’t stress this enough, these are theater people. I hate theater people like I hate televangelists and people who don’t use their turn signals. Worse, these are successful theater people, who are the only ones worse than regular theater people. There’s a smugness about them, a self-importance that while they are rolling about on stage shouting lines from Electra that what they are doing is so meaningful and important. You can feel the smug through the screen when Charlie talks about getting a MacArthur Fellowship or Nicole talks about her Emmy nomination. Fuck these people.
But they are uniformly terrible. Charlie did sleep with his stage manager. How does Nicole know? She hacks his emails. She also has something like a one-night stand with a grip, but (and this is the dialogue in the scene) only wants him to finger her—evidently so it won’t be like Charlie sleeping with the stage manager—and this will never come up again. Nora, immediately after trash talking Charlie for a few minutes, talks about how smart and brilliant Charlie is. I tend to like Laura Dern but she’s absolutely slappable in this.
You know what I like in this? Two things. First, Nicole’s mom is played by Julie Hagerty, who should be in more things. She’s great, and she’s funny, and she’s literally the only character in the movie who gives a shit about Charlie, asshole that he is. Second is the presence of Wallace Shawn as a blowhard-y member of Charlie’s company. NetFlix lists this as a comedy, and Shawn is the only comedic thing in the movie because he’s someone who can’t be anything other than adorable to watch.
Everything else about this movie is like falling into a fucking cactus.
Why to watch Marriage Story: Hey! It’s Julie Hagerty!
Why not to watch: All of these people are fucking terrible.