| March 6, 2022
There are many wonderful things in Marriage Story. The acting is excellent. It is the best photographed film in Noah Baumbach directorial filmography. There are great lines. Baumbach shows a mastery of verbal runs, both in dialogue and monologue.
But after seeing it twice and pushing away some of its problems – which may be my problems that are unfair to put on the filmmaker’s work – I still feel like there is a giant hole in the middle of this work.
Why is this couple getting divorced?
I can accept that in this era of more than fifty-percent of marriages ending in divorce that couples often just shrug their shoulders when they aren’t feeling “it” anymore and move on. But that is not what Baumbach seems to think of his characters. They are very, very specific and deliberate people. This is one of the big strengths of the film.
So when they choose to divorce without really working on their marriage, in spite of having an eight(?)-year-old child, I am not okay with that. As much as I like both of these characters, I am not a fan of people who decide to explore their personal needs at the cost of an elementary school child unless they have gone very, very far to try to make it work.
And the very start of this film tells us about all the reasons to try to make it work… and then one half of the couple simply decides she doesn’t feel like making the effort. And I can understand having had enough of a relationship and wanting to escape. I am pretty sure that everyone who has ever been married longer than 5 years knows the feeling. And I suppose if you don’t have a kid, no harm, no foul. But if you do…
I’m not judging everyone who divorces with children. Quite the opposite, really. Because everyone I know who has gotten a divorce after having a kid has, in real life, really fought to try to make it work and fought and fought and just had to end it eventually. Divorce is the right choice for a lot of people.
But if this couple did the work, it isn’t in this movie.
I spent time after this film wondering whether the intention Baumbach brought to this was to make a no-fault divorce movie and that these characters were stand-ins for anyone experiencing this moment. But I couldn’t convince myself. The characters are too clear and specific.
The first time I saw the film, I felt that Baumbach had really leaned the script in his own male direction. I felt that way less the second time. But still, in the end, she is a bit shallow and selfish and finds it much easier to move on from this marriage. She is the one who really made the decision and he never gets a conversation, much less a vote.
He has his own flaws. It’s not completely one-sided. But when it comes to the summing up, she sings the little ditty as one of three girls who are hooking up with the same guy and he gets to sing the epic ballad of a man who has finally come to the truth in his life that he wants more than having fun, being free, and avoiding responsibility. So you tell me.
Baumbach is a delightful writer. There is a verbal showdown at one point in the film and it is a brilliant piece of writing and performance… lyrical and musical. Alan Alda’s gentle divorce lawyer and Laura Dern’s brutal one are undeniable. Julie Hagerty is a joy to behold. Baumbach gets the awkwardness of the son when stuck between the parents pretty perfect.
But again, I feel like I came to the movie with too many ideas. There is a trick-or-treating sequence that is just not reality. Not in a world with iPhones. Not in an empty neighborhood three blocks up the hill from Santa Monica Boulevard’s Halloween mania. It’s almost signature Baumbach that he didn’t take the effort of a father desperate to excite his kid and let him make the mistake of taking an under-10 into Boy’s Town on Halloween and have to explain some awkward things while embracing the joy of the scene. Or even making the active choice to go up the hill (to a dead neighborhood) instead of down to the wildness.
I’m not looking for a hero and a villain. Maybe it’s my problem with much of Baumbach’s work… it screams of daring, but is ultimately extremely careful. It’s probably why Margot At The Wedding is my favorite directorial work of his… because it doesn’t cut away from the brutality when the brutality comes.
Marriage Story is a series of moments from a divorce (after a lovely four minutes that are all the scenes from a happy marriage we are going to get) that all ring true, but not so much when connected. He does asshole divorce lawyers great. He does the ambivalence of separating great. He does trying to focus on two different things of near-equal importance at the same time great.
And then he will take a flight of fancy to the point that it must be metaphor because no regular person is that silly and the movie resets for me. A bunch of times. It was quite frustrating.
I don’t dislike Marriage Story. There are too many good things in it for that. There are moments of greatness. But Baumbach is one of those filmmakers who tantalizes with the possibility of true greatness. And he has made a very accessible movie, but perhaps at the cost of that greatness. I keep seeing his films. I keep seeing the signs. I keep hoping with all of my heart.
For those who know Sondheim’s “Company,” this couple is all “Barcelona.” But the movie doesn’t seem to want to admit it. Doo doo doo doo doot doo… it could drive a critic crazy… it could drive a critic mad.
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