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He Sad, She Sad

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Wilson Webb/Netflix

MOVIE REVIEW
Marriage Story (2019)

For starters, the title is wrong. It’s a divorce story, specifically that of teen-sensation-actress-turned-arthouse-draw Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and self-made-theater-director Charlie (Adam Driver). The plot resembles so closely the outline of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s real-life marriage to his first wife that the gender of their actual child – onscreen, his name is Henry (Azhy Robertson) – hasn’t even been changed. As an audience, we are meant to be enthralled by this inside portrait of an artistic family’s disintegration. As people, watching this airing of some downright cruel dirty laundry, we really ought to look away.

Based on this, we have to reassess Mr. Baumbach’s talents as a fiction director, because the backstory of Nicole skews so closely to what’s in the public domain about his first wife as to be profoundly unsettling. But let’s set that aside for a moment and pretend we’re watching a fictional film. The reason the couple is splitting up is because they have different views on consent. We learn Charlie runs a small avant-garde theater company in New York City, for which Nicole has been the lead actress for nearly a decade. But Nicole grew up in Los Angeles, working in film and television in addition to the theater, and has recently accepted a television role that requires time in that city. Every time she proposed changing coasts permanently, Charlie balked. He is completely unable to understand why she is so unhappy, because she knew what life with him would offer when they got married.

Of course, having a child changes everything. It’s an unusual movie that tracks every potty conversation two parents must have on the daily, but then again, one supposes an avant-garde theater director normally considers himself above such quotidian stuff. So “Marriage Story” is about how a woman must move 3,000 miles and spend thousands of dollars on lawyers (Laura Dern is excellent as a discerning and thoughtful feminist force; Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are equally good as lawyers whose talents will be mentioned later) in order to get her husband to understand that: 1. it’s not only the mother who must adapt to parenthood; and 2. she has the right to change her mind about what she wants.

And my God, how Nicole must work at this. Her sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) makes the small level of assistance she must render all about her, and her dotty mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty, who the big screen has sorely missed) even gives Charlie legal advice. The chance to work on a major television show is shown as Nicole becoming a small cog in a large, impersonal machine – the scenes of actors at work show Mr. Baumbach’s serious debt to Woody Allen, a surprising choice for any director to make these days. But one of Nicole’s new colleagues recommends Nora, whose talents as a lawyer are matched only by her skills as a listener. Of course Nicole breaks down in tears at Nora’s absolute insistence that she put herself first for a change.

The rest of the movie shows no such kindness to Nicole. We are meant to sympathize that Charlie must rent a gloomy apartment in Los Angeles instead of staying in his booklined flat in Brooklyn. He has an entire staff of workers fulfilling his every personal and professional need so well that he wins a genius grant, and it takes an act of laughably stupid self-harm for him to realize that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. He sneers at Nicole’s purchase of a store-bought Halloween costume, and then insists on taking Henry around himself dressed as The Invisible Man. I mean, come on. And as if that wasn’t more than enough, he constantly whines about his finances, while paying off Mr. Alda’s reasonable lawyer in order to force Mr. Liotta’s attack dog into making their marital miscalculations public. And after all this, we’re meant to forgive Charlie’s self-pity, to forgive that he slept with his stage manager while Nicole was a new mother, and appreciate the nobility of his not screwing around in his 20s while their relationship was at its happiest.

The only reason this boring premise doesn’t sink the whole movie is because of Mr. Driver. He is a movie star down to his toenails, able to keep our entire attention even while being an entitled asshole. And he can sing, which is a genuine surprise. Ms. Johansson stands her ground in a completely thankless part, and has a good monologue laying out her thought processes about her life choices, but the movie is stacked against her, and it shows. When Charlie screams at her that, as long as their son was safe, he wishes she would die, and then collapses in tears at his own spite, Nicole rubs his back in silence. She should have broken the coffee table over his head.

It would be unfair to hold up a single movie as the perfect example of how misogyny manifests among the artistic classes, except that Mr. Baumbach is obviously telling his personal story and expecting the audience to be on his side. Who cares how well-made a movie is when it's just a narcissist whinefest? Who cares about Charlie/Noah’s career when his wife is miserable and his kid is caught in the middle? Is a woman bending and twisting and putting everyone else first until she realizes there’s hardly any of her left what marriage is supposed to be about these days? And if the answer is yes, who needs it?

Honestly. Who needs it?

If I were Mr. Baumbach’s first wife, I’d be getting back in touch with my lawyer.

Comments

Marriages fall apart for any number of reasons, and there is immense pain on all sides. Ms. Manvel seems unwilling to attempt to understand the pain Charlie feels during a divorce even if he is mostly to blame. Apparently a divorce story from a mans perspective is just to much for her? A divorce is a painful experience, for all parties involved Ms. Manvel.

The reason this review is so infuriating is because Ms. Manvel seems to take issue with the idea that the movie follows the mans perspectives. Nicole is the strong one in this film, the one who says enough is enough, and decides to take full control back of her life. But there is an entire other side to this story, and that story is not of a "bad guy", its of a deeply flawed man, who is struggling to navigate the awful divorce process and retain some meaningful control of his life. If the story followed the traditional, man does wrong, women flees, man makes life hard on her, then its simply lazy story telling. Tell me the truth, show me the pain. What Mr. Baumbach presented was pain. Two people, once in love, have grown apart as their lives have progressed (careers, children, etc). Nicole makes the hardest, and bravest choice of the movie by choosing to end their marriage. It's what follows that makes this compelling. She leaves town with their child, and puts Charlie in an impossible position, accept that his child now lives 3000 miles away, use his remaining wealth to establish a residence close to his child while feeding into Nicoles legal team, or contest the move. What is a father to do at this point?

Mr. Baumbach weaves his personal story through the movie showing the often overlooked story of the person "left behind", and who is just along for the ride in the legal system. Calling this story telling "misogyny" is hardly accurate.

Charlie is sympathetic because the circumstance of Nicole taking Henry to California and filing for divorce there puts most of the cards in her deck in the legal fight. Charlie realizes he is screwed when he talks to the first lawyer. The movie is not half over then. Charlie is the loser here, Nicole the victor with majority custody of the son in California with her new partner, better job and extended family. Good for Nicole, not as good for Charlie. The lessons are all still there even if Charlie's character seemed more interesting to you.

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