“Marriage Story” – “We were perfectly happy until we decided to live happily ever after.” – Carrie Bradshaw, “Sex in the City”
“Marriage is compromise and hard work, and then more hard work and communication and compromise. And then work. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” – Gillian Flynn
If the weather doesn’t comply with your family’s proposed weekend plans, a most-reliable backup is always at your disposal: start a pot of coffee, make some sandwiches, open a box of cookies, and reach into the hallway closet and pull out Monopoly. During blustery weekends, millions of families stay inside, huddle around a squared-circle chock full of streets, railroads and utilities, and giggle, argue, buy properties, pay rent, get rich, and go broke. Oh, temporary incarceration is also a frequent fact of life too, but it’s just a game.
In the pleasing, breezy and soulful opening minutes of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story”, he – in a most unique way – introduces Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and their life in New York City with their elementary school-age son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is an avant-garde playwright, and Nicole stars in his live theatrical constructions. They work together very well and recognize each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. They live symbiotically, and Baumbach also includes some footage of a lively Monopoly match, which is one of many, many small moments that help tether this very likable family to our own.
We want Charlie and Nicole to continue to thrive for the next 60 years, but as Ms. Bradshaw and Ms. Flynn opined, sustained marital success is not a certainty.
Other than co-writing “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), Baumbach isn’t particularly known for depicting healthy relationships in his films, which are evenly mixed with comedy and misfortune. Just look to “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), “Greenberg” (2010) and “While We’re Young” (2014) as prime examples. No, “Marriage Story” does not run victory laps in celebrating a healthy partnership for 2 hours and 16 minutes, because Charlie and Nicole are in crisis, and talking-it-out with a soft-spoken third party in a comfortable office at 200 dollars a click probably won’t solve it.
“It is personal,” Baumbach said in an August 2019 interview. “As a teenager my parents divorced, and then I went through a divorce as an adult.”
He adds that he used elements from his own experiences, but he wanted to broaden the film, because it’s such a huge subject.
Baumbach does this figuratively, but also literally, as this family’s journey volleys between New York and Los Angeles. The movie proudly celebrates these coastal locales while shutting out the flyover states. Still, the film’s threads champion the universality of Splitsville, which is familiar in every community, coast to coast.
With plenty of space and time, the razor sharp, perceptive script covers a lot of ground, like personal negotiation, lawyers knowing what’s best, distance making the heart grow less-fonder, and the impact on children.
Baumbach, however, regularly checks in with Charlie, as this character’s universe seems to ever-so-slowly evolve into a place that he no longer recognizes. Even though “Marriage Story” frequently poses as Charlie’s Story, Nicole isn’t a villain. The two are just guilty of being human, and Laura Dern and Alan Alda don’t break laws when playing lawyers, but they steal every on-screen moment by delivering levity through absurdity in a system that defies logic.
“Marriage Story” rarely gets explosive, except one signature scene that channels Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” (2013). Otherwise, the simplicities of imperfect-but-agreeable bliss seem to constantly and painfully shift into something else.
Something more distant. More clinical. More transactional.
Although there are a thousand places that a failing marriage can go, one thing is certain: a lazy Sunday filled with coffee, cookies and stops at St. Charles Place, Vermont Avenue and Boardwalk is not one of them.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Netflix