There’s a very popular but unofficial genre of motion pictures known as date movies. You know: “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Before Sunrise.” Boy meets girl, things go wrong, things go right. Then there are the opposites of those, the loud and nasty bad relationship movies: “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Husbands and Wives,” and the granddaddy of them all, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
It’s difficult to figure where to place “Marriage Story.” There’s some yelling involved, but not a lot. There’s mostly moods of frustration and sadness - along with, fortunately, a beautifully crafted script, a few well placed laughs (as in a subtle Beatles-related bit near the end), and performances that are firing on all pistons.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach knows how to make small, personal, heartfelt films. His most successful, box-office-wise, is still “The Squid and the Whale,” but my thoughts remain more positive for “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young.” And this one.
The momentarily confusing opening of “Marriage Story” features the off-screen voice of Charlie (Adam Driver) discussing what he likes about his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and his words are accompanied by home movies showing good times with the two of them and their young son Henry. That segues into her off-screen voice taking a turn at the same activity, with some of the same home movies. They both also include, almost as afterthoughts, a few things they don’t particularly like about each other. But those opening moments, that never show anyone speaking, stay within the realms of being light and breezy.
It’s after this prologue, when the characters are in front of cameras, playing out the story, that we begin to learn about their similarities - they’re both artists on the rise. He’s a hot experimental New York theater director. She’s a California TV actor who has switched to the theater and settled with him in New York so they can work together. And we learn about their differences which, as the story unfolds, are shown to be more of a problem than either of them had ever considered.
This is a story of a marriage in trouble, one that, although both partners love each other, is probably heading toward an abyss from which there’s no escape. They both realize this, and they both struggle to find a way to deal with it amicably.
For instance, he’ll work in New York, bringing his small, artsy production of “Electra” to Broadway. She’ll leave the play and, taking Henry along, will split for L.A., where she’ll make a TV pilot. It’ll be a breather for both of them. Then she’ll come “home” to New York and they’ll figure out a way to keep things together.
No, that’s not going to work, but “We love each other and we want to do what’s best for Henry. So, we’ll separate, but no lawyers! We’ll handle this ourselves.”
No, that’s not going to work, either. Say hello to her lawyer, the bright and calculating and possibly man-hating Nora (Laura Dern.). Nicole, under Nora’s bitter guidance, believes this will be for the best. Up against a wall and not knowing what to do, Charlie hires the no-holds-barred shark of a lawyer Jay (Ray Liotta), but soon sheds him for down-to-earth lawyer Bert (Alan Alda). Let the games begin.
Charlie and Nicole are two nice people who, against their wills, become caught up in traps set by their lawyers. I wonder what audience reactions are going to be. Will men be rooting for Charlie? Will women be on Nicole’s side? Will Bert be considered too wimpy? Will Nora be known as a villain?
Maybe Charlie and Nicole are simply too self-centered to be in a marriage. There are scenes where their love for each other is clear, but then there are moments where they have nothing to say to each other. One uncomfortable sequence boils over into a yelling match that will rattle viewers as much as the characters. Partly because of the venom that’s spewed, but partly because that love is still there.
So, another warning. If you’re in a troubled marriage, steer clear of this film. And if you’re considering seeing this with someone on a first date, there’s a very good chance there won’t be a second date.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
With Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta