I’m a fan of Noah Baumbach, the writer and director of the new film “Marriage Story.” His movies are often interesting, dark examinations of very flawed characters dealing with chaos and frustrations of domestic relationships. He creates lovingly crafted studies and examinations of dynamics between quirky protagonists, so much so his films can feel theatrical and wordy. At his best, Baumbach is a chronicler of the human experience—so long as those humans are artistically inclined and relationship deficient.
“Marriage Story” isn’t quite the home-run for which I was hoping. While the central performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen are fantastic, the story is a predictable slog of consequence-free emoting that never feels real or relatable. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a heralded theatre auetur working in New York with his wife Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), who left behind Hollywood and a film career to make stage art in the Big Apple. She loves her husband, but there’s part of her that wants to go back to California and pick up where she left off. This doesn’t mesh well with Charlie, who has a very limited scope of what he deems as successful. Making garbage content in Hollywood isn’t part of his grand design.
This is the fracture that drives our two lovebirds apart and destroys their once successful marriage. It’s also the catalyst for the story, as we watch them go from being married to going through unconscious coupling over the course of two hours. The entire movie focuses on Charlie and Natalie’s inability to compromise, and how their contempt eventually leads to a contentious battle for dominance—a battle facilitated by two very despicable but very capable divorce lawyers played deliciously by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta.
The lack of relatability in “Marriage Story” ultimately made it unsuccessful. The characters are likable enough but unsympathetic—pretentious artist types who struggle with issues of self and success. Neither are willing make any concessions about their own needs as their relationship disintegrates. Baumbach likes such characters and has done a significantly better job rendering them in films like “Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Abridged).” “Marriage Story” portrays divorce with the emotional margins of a young-adult romance novel and ends up having almost no consequences whatsoever for the main characters.
I forgot to mention Charlie and Natalie have a son; to be fair, the movie does as well. There’s a kid in the movie, but he’s just as much a prop as the computer, legal pads or food items supplied for the film. He’s not used meaningfully. The kid barely notices his parents splitting up. It seemed almost horror-movie crazy that a kid dealing with the stresses of his parents splitting up is this emotionally inert—not a whimper or an outburst, just an ambivalent shrug to the entire event. I’m not saying the movie needed to focus on the kid, but he was about as engaged as the creepy robot baby from “American Sniper.”
There’s one great and one good performance in “Marriage Story.” Adam Driver delivers something masterful in his portrayal of Charlie. I could feel each subsequent conversation that sent the couple into the dumpster of divorce chip away at his soul. Johansson is very good, but there’s something about her near-perfect veneer that is less likely to show wear and tear. Unfortunately, the performances are the only thing about the movie I would refer to as “above average.” Everything else is a familiar retread of themes and characters Baumbach has successfully examined already.
And this is why those unfamiliar with Baumbach may enjoy the movie far more. Those who haven’t seen his earlier films might not feel “Marriage Story” is redundant or reheated. The main characters might seem slightly less rehashed. For me, this is lesser Baumbach. It’s a perfectly fine movie but had nothing new to say. I expect some people will love Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” but I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven.