Noah Baumbach is no stranger to divorce. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” chronicles the experiences of a Brooklyn family adjusting to the separation of two parents; it is hilarious and heartfelt, and I love it. However, there is admittedly something “off,” something unreal about the family it depicts. The way its characters speak and interact with each other is close to reality, but just slightly askew from it. Across his body of work, Baumbach still manages to get to a real, profound emotional core in spite of the unbelievability of his characters, much like Wes Anderson does in his films.
There’s something different about “Marriage Story,” Baumbach’s latest film. It’s not necessarily better, just different. For lack of a better word, the divorce that ensues in “Marriage Story” is infinitely “realer” than the divorce in “The Squid and the Whale.” Unlike the latter, “Marriage Story” is fiercely committed to realism, and its two leads, Adam Driver (“Paterson”) and Scarlett Johansson (“Under the Skin”) lose themselves inside of the alternate reality Baumbach creates, and I can’t think of any two actors or any director I’d rather get lost with.
As Driver aptly put it in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, “Marriage Story” is a love story, but one that is told through the lens of a divorce. Driver and Johansson’s characters, Charlie and Nicole, are a married couple and parents to their son Henry (Azhy Robertson, “Juliet, Naked”). Apart from their son, they are highly involved in New York’s theater scene: Charlie directs, Nicole acts. For a plethora of reasons too complicated to adequately address here, Nicole decides to divorce Charlie and move her and her son to Los Angeles, where she grew up. What happens next is unpleasant to say the least.
Divorce tends to bring out the worst in people, and “Marriage Story” is well aware of that. Charlie and Nicole throw words at each other like daggers. Their passive aggression builds and builds until the point when it can’t anymore, and what results will take your breath away. The sheer intensity of their shouting match rivals any battle scene you’ll ever see. Charlie and Nicole, caught up in their anger, transform into something that is terrifying to witness. Watching Driver scream at Johansson, it is beyond clear that he is no longer himself. He’s not even his character anymore. He is rage. His is the kind of performance people will flock to “Marriage Story” to bear witness to. He will be nominated for an Oscar, and he deserves to win it.
Even though Charlie and Nicole sink to the depths of depravity when they finally lose control over their anger at one another, they are still, in spite of everything, good people. After all, one of the very first things Charlie’s divorce lawyer (Ray Liotta, “Goodfellas”) tells him is that divorce lawyers see the very worst parts of good people. We know they are good people because they are both, all in all, great parents who are devoted to their son. We also believe in their goodness because we know how much they once loved each other, and probably even still love each other. We know how much love they are capable of.
The film begins and ends with the reasons why Charlie and Nicole love each other, written down by both of them as an assignment from their separation counselor. Baumbach doesn’t want us to forget them, even when Charlie tells Nicole he wishes she were dead. In a particularly poignant moment, Charlie reads out Nicole’s reasons for loving him. She writes, “I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him.” A tear slides down Charlie’s cheek.
There’s that famous statistic that says that half of all marriages end in divorce. In all likelihood that statistic is outdated, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the success rate of marriages has gotten even smaller since. Divorce is no longer the exception, it is the rule. So why do we even bother?
Baumbach seems to have his own reasons why. In an interview with The Guardian, Baumbach describes marriage as “a great act of hope.” But how can that be possible, how can we be hopeful when the chances of a successful marriage are so small? Maybe Baumbach wants us to reconsider what it means for a marriage to be “successful.” Maybe the goal of marriage shouldn’t be longevity. Maybe it should be happiness, for as long as that is possible. Maybe the expectation of lifelong happiness only serves to sour the present moment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why this movie is called “Marriage Story,” not “Divorce Story.” We hardly get any glimpse into Charlie and Nicole’s life together pre-divorce. But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps divorce in the 21st century is just as much a part of a marriage as the actual marriage itself. Perhaps separation is inevitable, or if not inevitable, likely. Maybe that’s okay — “Marriage Story” seems to think so. There are always more people to love.