Let’s throw all those declarations that “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s dissection of a divorce, is unbearably “real” because of its “honesty.”
It’s not a docu-drama. It’s theatrical, melodramatic, over-the-top and no more representative of the end of a marriage than say a Woody Allen movie set in the same showbiz family milieu, “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
“Real” suggests a lot of people can vouch for it out of experience, and the people here are unrepresentative in the extreme. So that’s not true. Perhaps my sister and brother critics should consider that.
No movie with a a bi-coastal bourgeois acting community couple, a “TV pilot” and “MacArthur (genius) Grant,” blood-spilled on a court-ordered “evaluator” visit to an apartment where one parent might get custody, where generations of one family have agents and the husband can remember dialogue and the lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” and feels the confidence and freedom to get up and belt “Being Alive” out when he hears the pianist in a New York bar tinkle out the first notes, is “real” is any sense for the vast majority of us.
And I’m not just speaking for “flyover America” when I say that. But you’re not going to hear anybody in Roanoke or Grand Forks or Orlando defend themselves to their lawyer with this sentence.
“I had never come alive myself. I was just feeding his aliveness!”
But it is touching, at times, and it does find and broach some emotional truths. And Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, as Nicole and Charlie, are gloriously alive on the screen, and can feel ripped from real life, even in their over-the-top moments.
It’s an indulgent dramedy, with hilariously venal lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta), $25,000 retainer fees and a sweeter, sensitive practitioner of “family law” who can’t help coming off as a doddering, wussy pushover (Alan Alda).
The script has a mediator who can’t mediate (Robert Smigel), scattered moments of “counseling” or “family law” speak, elaborate “theater people” Halloween costumes, on-set gossips and an acting family — Julie Haggerty plays Nicole’s dizzy actress-mom, Merrit Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) her sister) — that stages and rehearses the moment sister Cassie “serves” Charlie his divorce papers.
And when Charlie arrives, he literally breaks down “the scene” to uncover its intent, how he’s supposed to react.
The uglier truth about divorce, divorced from the theatrics, is that it can be abrupt and emotional without lawyers, or drawn-out and emotional and expensive with lawyers.
I’d wager that there is rarely the sort of wall-punching post-filing shout-off depicted here. And the safe money is on this one last truth. There is no closure.
Baumbach frames this “Story” in lovely, sad scenes. We begin with the mediator trying to get each to remember everything they fell in love with about the other, and failing to convince the two to read what we’ve heard in voice-over narration out loud to each other.
“She’s a good citizen… She can drive a stick…She’s a mother who plays, really plays.”
“He cries easily in movies…He dresses well. He never looks embarrassing, very hard for a man.”
Yes, there are backhanded compliments mixed in. We know this isn’t going to change direction. Ever.
And the finale, no spoiler here, is heartbreaking as that “not reading aloud” declaration of virtues was never corrected.
This is the heightened reality of melodrama and comedy, where the distracted pitbull lawyer (Liotta) consulted because “she” has hired his female equivalent (Dern) thunders “If we start from a place that’s reasonable, and THEY start from a place of CRAZY, when we settle we’ll be somewhere between reasonable and CRAZY.”
Still, as with many failing marriages, the in-laws have fallen for the spouse being kicked out of the family.
“You have to STOP loving him, Mom. You can’t be friends with him any more.”
Mom can’t swear on “my dead gay husband” that she’ll do that. But hey, it’s a movie.
That, as you certainly have picked up by now, is my big gripe here. Whatever Baumbach, who has been through his own (public) divorce is working through in this script, the “truths” we can sink our teeth into and relate to are few and far between.
Yes, mediators “take sides.” Plenty of other movies and TV shows got to this first. Yes, there is a “loser” in even the “friendliest” divorces. Dern and Liotta score points breaking down — again (other movies, TV shows beat them to it) — California’s whiplash-inducing family law code biases.
The son Charlie and Nicole share (Azhy Robertson) becomes a tyrannical tyke, acting out — also choosing sides.
But the artifice of the world this is set in, the cash that even the supposedly “struggling” can bring to bear in this abstract showbiz world, was a turn-off to me.
I have a little experience of divorce, others and my own. For my money, HBO’s “Divorce” is funnier and more realistic and representative, if less emotional and operatic.
“Marriage Story” is almost funny enough and touching just often enough to endorse. It’s good, but it’s no “Scenes from a Marriage” or “Husbands and Wives” or hell, “Company,” for that matter. It’s just Netflixable.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and sexual references.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Julie Haggerty, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever, Robert Smigel and Wallace Shawn.
Credits: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:17