Don’t be fooled by the title. “Marriage Story” should be called “Divorce Story.” That would better prepare you for the highly realistic, yet emotionally draining experience of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, loosely based on his own divorce and amplified by the subtle most performances in recent years from its protagonists.
Not every movie is meant to entertain. Some are meant to capture the harshest of realities. Spend your moviegoing money accordingly, knowing that you are in for dramatic heartache.
Having lived together in New York, where Nicole starred in Charlie’s theatre productions wherein both achieved critical acclaim, she is decamping to LA where a TV pilot awaits. Charlie insists the move is temporary, but increasingly their son, Henry, seems to view California as home. Wherever they go, the couple appear trapped, a quality emphasised by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s carefully choreographed, Bergman-esque framing, capturing them in confined interiors even while those around them babble about “the space” of Los Angeles.
While the legal procedural thread underwrites the narrative, tonally, Marriage Story slips nimbly between a tender emotional drama and laugh-out-loud screwball comedy. A scene involving the serving of divorce papers turns tragedy into farce, while Nicole’s instruction to her mother to “stop loving Charlie!” provokes laughter and tears in equal measure. There’s even a musical element, with the maneuvering of Stephen Sondheim songs for an unexpected emotional punch, while Randy Newman’s romantic score ensures that our heartstrings are pulled in several directions at once.
What’s extraordinary about Marriage Story is that everyone in this story is right, based on their position in the situation. Charlie is right, Nicole is right and Henry is right. And they are all hurting. Baumbach has come about as close as you can get to telling a wrenching divorce story with devastation but no villainy.
Because Marriage Story is about the terrible process of a bad-math divorce, it would be easy to see in it a bleakness that would make it uninteresting. But the performances are so good and the story is so complex that it is, in the end, startlingly and deeply humane. “Who was in the wrong here?” you might find yourself asking as you get to the end. Neither of them, is the answer, and both of them.
Tail Piece: The producers, Netflix wanted to shake the Hollywood playing ground a little bit, by leasing the Paris theatre in New York City, closed in last August, for premiering their Oscar hopeful Marriage Story. As a matter of fact, the ‘Paris’ has a 71-year history, which was opened on September 13, 1948, with Marlene Dietrich cutting the ribbon. If you have never been to New York and only know it from the movies, it sits in catty-corner to the Plaza hotel and across from the south-eastern entrance to Central Park. Around the corner is Fifth Avenue, where you will find Tiffany & Co and Bergdorf Goodman.