Grackles review Marriage Story

Directed by Noah Baumbach 

Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli and Rebecca Bernard

In 2005, writer/director Noah Baumbach cemented his place as a chronicler of raw dramedies with his searing The Squid and the Whale. A marked changed of pace from his earlier indie films, The Squid and the Whale was his semi-autobiographical story growing up as the child of two strong-willed parents who are going through a volatile divorce. Fourteen years later, Baumbach’s own divorce (he had previously been married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) serves as the inspiration for Marriage Story, a different kind of divorce drama centering on the arduous process of dissolving a marriage.

As the film starts, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are already in the process of divorcing. For the better part of a decade, they’ve been a collaborative couple in New York theatre (he a director, she an actress). Now, she plans to relocate to California to reignite her Hollywood career and pursue her unrealized ambitions. Neither seem prepared for the seismic shift divorce will bring until Nicole opts to seek legal council instead of self-mediating. Charlie, in denial of the seriousness of what’s happening, soon finds himself in an expensive cross-country custody battle for their son.

Charlie Riccardelli: I don’t know about you, Rebecca, but sometimes when watching Marriage Story I wanted to cover my eyes like I was watching a horror film. Even if the viewer has no experience with divorce, they’ve probably witnessed or lived through a messy breakup, and this film hits at a lot of the rawer elements of what might happen: friendly amicability that turns sour, pitting people against the partner, custody issues, changing dynamics with friends and family, and the usual emotional toll. I’d be curious how couples handle watching this film together. I remember hearing once that the great Ingmar Bergman’s similarly heightened Scenes from a Marriage caused divorce rate to rise in Sweden after it debuted.

Marriage Story is coming out forty years after another famous divorce drama, Kramer vs. Kramer, and it’s interesting to see how much society has changed in how couples work together in a relationship, and yet the basic conflicts of that earlier film are much the same in Marriage Story. Even as I tried to remain an objective viewer, I couldn’t help but take sides at some points. Perhaps Baumbach’s greatest strength here is that he always finds a way to take whatever you identified with and fling it back at you to reveal a certain selfishness or contradiction sitting beneath the surface of every conflict they’ve let metastasize.

Rebecca Bernard: It’s really interesting to read that about the film’s relation to Baumbach’s own divorce (of which I was unaware)—I kept finding myself thinking about Kramer vs. Kramer as well, though I couldn’t remember many details. I agree that one of the film’s strengths is that we see these vestigial moments of tenderness even in the context of great anger. The way that we cannot stop loving someone, even if we have effectively stopped loving them in any practical context. To an extent, I see your point about the shifting identification, but I ultimately found myself somewhat more aligned with Charlie’s character, and I think part of this is because of the way information or motivation is imparted. I found myself confused and frustrated over Nicole’s decision to partner with the lawyer, given its tremendous economic burden, and this wasn’t fully answered for me until, what I think is arguably the film’s best scene, when the two end up in the pivotal fight which demonstrates how mediation could not have possibly been successful. I think maybe part of this is that we see Nicole in a powerful position throughout the film, and we’re only told that she was under the thumb of his ego—I don’t know that we see this, beyond mention of the affair, etc.

Regardless, I did find the way that we’re able to see hatred and tenderness together one of the strengths. Their relationship was fully realized for me, and perhaps the film wants this from us—I didn’t fully feel the need for the divorce until just before the end of the film.

I also found that beyond the scenes of great emotion, there were a couple scenes that were outright funny. In particular, the moment when the social worker is present, and Charlie inadvertently injures himself. I thought the use of absurd humor was pretty masterful here, in that it not only balanced the prior intensity, but it enabled us to see his failure in an unexpected manner. I’d be curious if you had a similar impression.

CR: I definitely had the same reaction. Once Charlie and Nicole settle on using lawyers, they become incidental in their own divorce. Their lawyers care less about doing right by their clients and the child and more with being the most vicious junkyard dog in the fight. Only someone familiar with divorce could zero in on some of the bizarrely hilarious moments that result from their battle (questions about paying for your lawyers’ jokes, stark tonal shifts when the lawyers take a lunch break, interacting with former in-laws post-breakup, etc). Sometimes the jokes even come in darkly humorous takes as Nicole and Charlie, usually in fits of anger, hit with a sharp right hook at the other’s shortcomings in a way the audience can relate to, whether we want to admit it or not.

But I want to swing back to your earlier point about how mediation would have been a failure. That’s hammered home in the opening scene when they are speaking to a professional and Nicole is unwilling to participate. I think, without ever passing judgment on Nicole, Baumbach effectively shows that possible contradictions about how she sees herself and her marriage. Maybe she is stifled by Charlie, but maybe she’s genuinely a person who needs someone like her husband to make choices for her, and that could come from natural insecurity or maybe even living under Charlie’s thumb for so long she forgot how to be independent. Charlie does have that agreeableness about him that I know I’ve been guilty of doing myself where politeness can be (intentionally or not) undermining to a partner. I’m grateful that the film drops us into the middle of the divorce so we need to take both sides at their word.

 Editors Note: I don’t think we’re getting into the realm of full blown spoilers, but hereafter the conclusion of the film is discussed in some detail.

 RB: I agree that the film’s in medias res entrance is effective, though I’m just not sure I agree that the case for mediation’s failure is made by that opening scene. More so, I think we learn that the divorce is essentially Nicole’s decision, her choice, and so again it reinforces this notion that, for the first time in perhaps a long time, she’s choosing to take control. I do believe the film makes a seeming effort at presenting both points of view, but the way that the film’s focus transfers toward Charlie in the latter half as well as the fact that Charlie seems to have the most emotionally riveting scenes, skews the balance for me. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it isn’t a level field in my viewing. For example, if we counter Charlie’s scene singing in the café toward the film’s conclusion alongside Nicole’s dialogue to her lawyer regarding the reasons for her separation, we don’t get the same purity of emotion, or perhaps sense of devastation. It feels like the actor versus the acted upon. Again, this is exemplified by the film’s final scene, where it’s Charlie who has the emotional peak, though this brings me to the only thing that really took me out of the film.

I would say, as a viewer, the neatness and symmetry of the ending felt a bit too clean for me. I understand the decision to juxtapose the messy divorce with the symmetrical echoes of the list, the canvasser, etc. but to me it felt like a too perfect shape for the turbulence of what we’d witnessed. I kept finding myself thinking if the film were a short story, that I would be annoyed that everything became an echo, and I wanted there to be elements that didn’t fit so perfectly into the mold. I might not have felt this so strongly, but the ending with the child reading, it just felt so dangerously saccharine, only just saved by Driver’s excellent emotive performance, and by the moments that follow the reading of the list. We’ve been shown for 90 minutes that things are not neat, and now they’re nearly wrapped with a bow. But perhaps I’m being too nitpicky or cynical here. In all, I did enjoy the film and particularly its portrayal of the deeply ambivalent emotions the characters held/hold for one another.

CR: It does end on a treacly note, one that I think Driver keeps buoyant because of the pure emotion weight he lends it. I don’t mind Baumbach’s tearjerker flourish, even if it’s a little too easy given the dominoes that set it up, underscored by an overly sentimental Randy Newman score in that moment. I don’t begrudge Baumbach this sentimentality, even if it plays a bit too anticlimactic. Baumbach effectively balances so much of the sweet and sour when so many of his films delve headfirst into the former (Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha) or the latter (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding). It’s nice to have a moment where they can remember that there was love between them once. At the end of so many relationships, it’s hard to remember.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.

Rebecca Bernard is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of North Texas where she serves as Managing Editor for American Literary Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Southwest Review, Pleiades, Meridian and elsewhere. Her work received notable mention in the Best American Short Stories of 2018.