I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.
The result is that, even though Marriage Story derives from first-hand experience – the disintegration of Baumbach’s marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh – there is often an air of second-hand referentiality and artifice, be it in the compositions, affected careers in the performing arts, or the whacking great Scenes from a Marriage poster announcing “Yes, this is my major influence”. It isn’t unusual for artists to put themselves into their work – Allen and Stephen King are just the most obvious testaments to that – but with Baumbach, it has become a rather annoying tail wagging the donkey. Thus, Adam Driver’s Charlie Barber is a hotshot theatre director breaking up with wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress intent on pursuing a TV career in LA, with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), mainly identified by his toilet habits, caught between them.
There have been comparisons to Kramer vs. Kramer, presumably for want of another easily graspable touchstone documenting the familial effects of divorce, but Marriage Story doesn’t really compare in any kind of tonal way. Kramer vs. Kramer, as strong a feature as it is in many respects, is infused with undeniably audience-friendly beats that Baumbach, in his New York cocoon, largely eschews. He isn’t interested in the most accessible avenue, even if Randy Newman’s largely misplaced score is.
Instead, Baumbach’s film is acutely artistically self-conscious. Even as you are caught up in the characters’ conflicting perspectives, you’re aware of Baumbach the observer, calculated of intent and schematics, as he asks his performers to produce raw emotion on tap. Such conceits as the allusions to Charlie’s cast acting as Greek chorus to both play and movie flounder, as they are insufficiently integrated (a shame, as the inimitable Wallace Shawn is among them). Of course, Woody went with that idea wholesale in Mighty Aphrodite.
The songs dumped in towards the end providing dual perspectives come across as a precious indulgence rather than anything remotely integral. And a scene in which Nicole notes she can’t cry on stage is followed by one in which she really cries. Because, like, you know, her emotion is genuine, and here’s the proof. A scene of their attempting to discuss matters without lawyers present quickly devolves into a slanging match in which Charlie punches a wall, wishes Nicole was hit by a bus and then sinks into a sobbing heap on the floor. It has power, but it simultaneously feels rehearsed; “This is what we plan to show in this scene, how warring couples say what they don’t mean and then regret it”.
Other choices are more successful, such as the bookended lists of positive qualities Charlie and Nicole have been asked to write by their mediator. We hear Charlie’s at the outset, but Nicole won’t read out hers; at the end, he finds Henry reading them and breaks down at the good things she finds in him. Several farcical episodes provide light relief: Charlie being served his divorce papers by Nicole’s reluctant sister (Merritt Weaver); Charlie being visited by an evaluator (Martha Kelly) and proceeding to lacerate his wrist.
If I’m emphasising Charlie there, it’s simply because he makes more impact. It’s been suggested by some that Baumbach sides with Charlie, and so pushes the audience in that direction, but I think there’s more than enough evidence that Marriage Story makes Charlie out to be single-minded, ungiving, lacking empathy – “Come on. You were happy. You’ve just decided you weren’t now” he insists – cheating and jealously competitive (even at the end, a year later, the beat he takes before congratulating Nicole on her Emmy nomination for directing – his territory – is very telling).
So I don’t think it’s that. Rather, Charlie has been fashioned as a compelling character in a way Nicole simply hasn’t. Johansson doesn’t help, of course, since she’s capably flat in all her roles. Her most engaging moment might be one of the most superficial, appearing as Let’s Dance-era Bowie for Halloween (and even then, who wouldn’t want to see Adam Driver as a Claude Rains-vintage Invisible Man?) Julie Hagerty, contrastingly, is fantastic as her mom, leaving you wanting more of her interplay with Charlie.
It’s also no coincidence, surely, that Marriage Story is at its most engaging when it most resembles traditional Hollywood fare structurally, rather than Baumbach flourishing his arthouse leanings. Which is anything involving the legal proceedings. Laura Dern gives a marvellous mask of insincere concern as Nicole’s lawyer; the only genuine quality she betrays is wanting to stick it to her opponents (of the 55/45 visitation rights she secures in Nicole’s favour, she says she didn’t want Charlie bragging to his friends that he got 50/50).
Liotta, looking rather different to when I last saw him in anything, is dynamite as Charlie’s bulldog representation; “This is a street fight now” Dern observes of his hiring, and for a while there are dependably familiar courtroom fireworks. Prior to this, the picture charts budget-conscious Charlie’s growing frustration with the well-meaning, frail representation given by Alan Alda’s Bert Spitz (“I’m sorry Bert. Am I paying for this joke?” he asks during a particularly shaggy-dog anecdote).
If I sound a bit sour on Marriage Story, it’s more at the familiar Baumbach tics than the areas where he’s attempting to extend himself. This is often an engrossing if overstretched drama. But as with Netflix’s other big awards hopeful The Irishman, I don’t think it truly merits its hype. The ubiquitous Driver is naturally very good, while the picture’s perfectly pitched when charting the legal abyss that swallows the couple – I’m still unclear how either were able to afford to divorce, mind. However, Baumbach also insists on incorporating his pretensions, and Marriage Story would ultimately have been better if he’d spared us all.