In an ongoing series, Drew Trotter of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers is sharing his reflections on this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees. For the whole series, click here.
Marriage Story (R, 137 mins.)
Director: Noah Baumbach. Writers: Noah Baumbach. Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Azhy Robertson, Ray Liotta
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance.
Plot Outline: Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
-Summary drawn from IMDB
Where to find it: Netflix
Marriage Story is the powerful, but flawed, telling of a marriage falling apart in the post-modern age. One of the two Netflix entries in the Best Picture race, it fits very well on the small screen with a lot of two-shot, interior location set-ups, and, as with many pictures in this year’s Oscar race, a story that is slow-moving at best is raised to a much higher level by great dialogue writing and superb acting.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber. He is a director—plays, not films—and she is an actress, who would prefer movies and television, but has dutifully moved from California to New York with Charlie and Henry, their eight-year-old son, to act in Charlie’s plays. As the movie opens, we are introduced to the principal characters by the interesting device of seeing them as individuals in a montage of scenes, while their spouse tells in voice-over what the best traits of the other one are. The viewer eventually finds out this is a writing exercise that a marriage counselor has assigned them. The attempt at reconciliation fails, and Nicole answers an offer to shoot a TV pilot in Los Angeles, taking Henry with her. The rest of the movie alternates between divorce proceedings and flashbacks, sometimes of happier moments, sometimes of less than happy ones.
Story was written and directed by Noah Baumbach and seems to be his attempt at saying that marriage is nothing, but family is everything. He offers the relationship of a New York theatre director and an actress who is that director’s star, but who would rather be in California, as his proof. This movie suffers badly from its circumstances: big budget California divorce lawyers, an entertainment marriage and all its accoutrements, and California vs. New York City life decisions just don’t make for a story to which anyone in fly-over country can relate. The performances by Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda are good and the writing is good, but it was just hard to care about these people after you saw who they were. Even worse for the viewer, the plot point that they were going to work this out on their own was just dropped without explanation, and the believability of the whole process after that became less and less possible.
As the tagline description from IMDb implies (“Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.”), Baumbach seems to want to say that you can do fine as a family without having the unnecessary burden of marriage. There is a hopeful ending, though it is far from certain that the two will reconcile, much less stay married. An additional problem for the viewer arises as they are shown to be friendlier and friendlier and is embedded in the question, “And, again: why did they split up?”
There are scenes that resonate, particularly one very powerful fight near the end of the film, because those kinds of fights can happen to anyone and because Driver and Johansson give their all in this highly emotional confrontation. But most of the fights have to do with divergent opinions like New York vs. California, theatre vs. television—issues that just don’t have meaningful analogues in the worlds of most viewers. There are some deep, universal issues portrayed like husband domination, wifely submission, etc., but most of these are just not problematic enough in this marriage to sustain the believability of the story.
Another problem with Story is that some of the film’s scenes are so stereotypical, they are downright silly, such as the visit by the family services woman who is a relational nightmare as she tries to assess Charlie’s reliability as a parent. The scene is supposed to be funny but is just silly.
Marriage Story can certainly provide good discussion points about that great institution, but the framing of the story undercuts discussion of most marriage problems. The lack of money; whether to have, and how to raise, children; sexual infidelity and persistence—none of these pose major problems (though infidelity does enter the picture, it is treated as a minor after-thought) for the couple, yet these are the biggest problems nation-wide in keeping a marriage stable. Again, it is almost as if Noah Baumbach is trying to say that really good people can just give up on marriage, and it is no great loss. The important thing is family. No Christian could ever say that.