Marriage Story features tremendous talent but can’t divorce itself from problematic gender expectations.
Marriage Story feels like a union between an early Woody Allen “love on the rocks” story and Kramer Vs. Kramer. It pits two talented leads, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, against each other in a bittersweet divorce drama, abetted by a stellar supporting cast. While the film will likely become as much a classic as Annie Hall or Kramer Vs. Kramer, it doesn’t feel as culturally specific as those films. This can be a blessing and curse.
Marriage Story (2019)
A celebrated theater director (Driver) and his leading lady (Johansson) split up just as their play reaches Broadway. She heads back to LA to restart her film career, while he navigates the plaudits his suddenly famous play is attracting. When the geographical divide leads to growing acrimony over custody of their young son, the couple find themselves in a vicious legal battle.
Marriage Story divides up the narrative perspective between Johansson and Driver. This clever device helps each to flesh out their character and their side of the escalating battle. The split tries to dodge around the thorny issue of taking sides; just as we start to develop too much sympathy or antipathy for one participant, we quickly switch perspectives and the narrative walks our allegiance back towards the center.
The above trick nearly works. Nearly. I think my one big gripe with Marriage Story is that the story eventually needs a bad guy, and Johansson is obviously director Noah Baumbach’s choice. Our first meeting with the characters has them creating a list of what the like about each other. It’s a fantastic summary device that lets each have their own voice…but then we hit a snag where Johansson refuses to read her list to the divorce mediator and storms out.
From there we see her eventually hire a cut-throat lawyer (Laura Dern, really baring her fangs in a thankless role.) Dern does a great job of being the stereotypical vindictive feminist in a power suit. She takes her client from ambivalence over the settlement to a kill or be killed mentality, with a healthy dose of demonizing her ex.
While Baumbach shows a counterpoint of Driver also getting a vicious lawyer, Johansson is already in the hole: he’s only getting a lawyer because he’s been attacked, and he even goes with a more conciliatory lawyer first (a nice bit role by Alan Alda.) While Johansson reveals all of the ways in which Driver was a big part of the marriage failing to her lawyer, because it’s being drawn out of her by an unsympathetic character, it’s tainted. Everything gets colored by her being the one to draw first blood and escalate instead of mediate.
Marriage Story very much feels like a 1970’s drama. This lends it an aura of timelessness (and obviously calls back to the heyday of the genre). It also makes the film lack immediacy. Dealing with theater, it already is a bit hermetically sealed away from the majority of audience experiences. Feeling like its not quite contemporary, or at least not specifically interested in being about marriage in 2019, it loses a little emotional voltage. Allusions to changing gender relations post #MeToo don’t land. The fact that Driver is a person in authority in the entertainment industry and has an affair with an assistant is not really mined for its cultural impact. Hell, the film hardly makes many of his flaws feel at all transgresive.
I think Marriage Story does quite a bit well. The acting is absolutely phenomenal. The dialogue is really well written. The cinematography matches the emotional tone of the scenes well, and there are quite a few story-telling flourishes that help keep the pace consistently engaging. And yet…
I wish that certain elements had been handled with more care. At the end of the day, I think it feels like an update of Kramer Vs. Kramer, that lacking a specific 2019 identity, makes me wonder if I’d rather just go re-watch that classic movie. That movie also let the husband be the sympathetic one. I guess 50 years later, the burden of proof has not shifted that much.