Marriage Story promised to be the next high-flying marriage drama, but it turned out to be quite a dull watch instead. Built around its actors before than around its characters, Noah Baumbach’s latest film paints a discoloured and theatrical portrayal of a couple having a nervous breakdown, and has a narrow escape only thanks to its leads’ Oscar-worthy performances.
Name your top three marriage dramas (for the game’s sake, we’ll pretend it’s a thing) off the top of your head. If you picked Kramer vs Kramer (1979), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Gone Girl (2014), we’re definitely on the same page – but anything by Bergman would do too. Now let’s concentrate. What made those films your very favourite ones? Why are they so uncompromisingly emotional, painstakingly beautiful, unremittingly effective? My answer to that is: they’re marriage dramas that don’t talk about marriage or, more precisely, that frame the marriage crisis they depict into a wider “something” – be it a Moebius strip-like chronology, obscure bits and pieces of black and white footage portraying events that might never have happened, or controversial endings that will leave your moral persona forever shattered to pieces. Those films are so great because they don’t just talk about marriage: they gobble up the spectators instead, awakening all their senses to the human dilemma that’s happening on screen and turning them into suckers for emotions. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which got the wrong end of the stick when it came to choosing between being either emotional or dramatic.
Featuring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s enchanting firecracker performances, Baumbach’s latest film unabashedly flirts with theatre-like mise-en-scene techniques to deliver the visually well-behaved divorce story of Charlie and Nicole, theatre director and actress respectively, and of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). After some years of an apparently happy marriage, the couple splits up. Lawyers are called in to guarantee the two parties’ best interests, which would ideally boil down to settlement money and child custody. Nevertheless, as things move forward, Baumbach’s film reveals something rotten and disgusting hiding beneath the surface of friendly agreements, and Marriage Story seriously risks becoming an all-round critique of the greed for money on which contemporary US society still thrives.
However, Baumbach U-turns and pulls the camera back into four walls, crafting calculated movements and shutting “all the world outside” to leave his leads spitting words at each other in an almost self-complacent way. Marriage Story is built around its actors before than around its characters. And it is only thanks to Driver and Johansson’s Oscar-worthy performances that the film doesn’t crumble apart and manages to keep sufficient narrative tension between one confrontation and the next. Every hair-splitter like me will take serious effort in underlining the difference between theatre-like (actors talking on screen and “doing” nothing) and theatricality (an overflow of unconvincing feelings which are poured over audiences in a declamatory, emphatic style). And Marriage Story’s theatricality leaves no breathing space for emotions deeper than soap-opera sentimentality, leading us to recognize the characters’ troubles, but not our own.
So, from a certain point of view, Baumbach’s film is quite a masterly achievement. He manages to turn a potentially devastating reflection on human bonds and relationships into a quite plain postcard from a court room – everything is written out before your eyes, and you barely started reading. Quite a dull watch indeed, especially if we take into account the considerable amount of time we spent praying that some plot twist of sort would happen and turn on the lights of this quite discoloured painting. In this monotonous narrative landscape, all my gratitude goes to Laura Dern for trying to enliven matters with a superb impersonation of an anthropophagus divorce lawyer. Even though it didn’t suffice this time, you really are one of the finest ladies out there, Mrs. Dern, and you gave me something to stir my wits with.
But now I must go. I was left confused after having played this film on Netflix and not having shed a tear for more than two hours. I need something to soothe my eyes and soul. I think I’ll re-watch Disney’s Up. After all, isn’t that a marriage story – and all but one – as well?