When reading a bit about Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, I happened upon this headline from The Telegraph – “Marriage Story should be compulsory viewing for any parent heading for divorce.” While I don’t disagree with the title, I also think it does scarce justice to the film. If you think that is hyperbole, then let me place for your consideration the scene of this year, the performance of 2019 and the most ‘real’ line ever written about a crumbling relationship. It is Scarlett Johansson and her controlled implosion at the office of her lawyer (Laura Dern, in a scene-stealing turn herself). Towards the end of her harangue, Johansson observes wistfully, “He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.” The amount of truth, pain and sting in that line is symptomatic of this film.
The singular, stellar achievement of the writer-director is that he doesn’t vilify either of the leads or just take one person’s point of view as the two (Adam Driver plays the male lead) go through the last stages of their marriage. It is an incredibly tough task to pull us towards two characters who are gradually distancing themselves from one another. Our loyalties are with both as we get enough glimpses into their strengths, foibles and weaknesses. The fact that the couple doesn’t let their divorce proceedings eclipse their humanity is one of the poignant elements of the film – watch Johansson’s response to Dern shifting a 50-50 arrangement to a 55-45 one (in her favor). That the film offers pregnant pauses while zooming in on these moments instead of rushing through them speaks to the trust that the filmmaker places in the audience.
The scenes with the lawyers (Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) are fascinating and scary in equal measure. The brute force of some of the arguments, the casual throwaway lines and the lawyer-client dynamics offer a very compelling counterpoint to some of the simplicity, genuineness and empathy that the couple try to retain in their household amidst some tough decisions. While Dern has the juiciest lines, Alda’s world-weariness and avuncular attitude are endearing to watch.
But at the end of the day, this film is about its leads. The director paints them both in a light enough shade of gray to not make them unlikable yet three-dimensional enough to make their interactions immensely relatable. The film’s most striking visual involves the two of them closing a wheeled gate together, while standing on either side of it. The glances they exchange towards each other while shutting the door, so to say, gently but definitely on one another, are moving.
The film may be about two people – or rather three, counting their kid – going through a period of closing a door to one another. But while doing so with a sureness of foot and delicacy of emotion, the movie affords us a chance to open a window into our own soul. To assess and reassess our own choices in the relationships that mean something to us. And to make sure that we ask ourselves tough questions in a timely manner. As Johansson’s misty-eyed reaction to a key decision of Driver’s in one of the concluding scenes suggests, it is our timely choices that make us who we are. And to the extent to which we factor in the self and our loved ones without too much of a skew in either direction, the more satisfying those choices will be. In essence, the film’s finale is really a starting point. A starting point not just for parents heading for a divorce but also for couples wanting to take their relationships to greater heights while plumbing the emotional depths of one another. In short, it is “compulsory viewing” for all adults in search of meaning in relationships.