What’s a marriage? Is it union of two people in love? Or is it a proof to society that two people are in love? Or is it just a contractual relationship recognized by law? Well, the answer might depend on person to person. The truth is when two people are in love and want to spend their lives together, it doesn’t matter what the definition of marriage is. They just want to be together and if marriage happens to be a seal of approval of their love, then so be it. But, ask anyone who is getting separated or has undergone the process of divorce, and they will tell you that marriage is in the end a contract. And not just any contract, but a contract that comes with a lot of additional baggage — most of them emotional. Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’ isn’t about marriage per se; it is rather about the emotional and legal repercussions of breaking up of a marriage. I think a more apt title for the film would have been “Separation Story” or even “Divorce Story”, for Baumbach definitely isn’t making any arguments for marriage in the film; he is making arguments against marriage — and for love, if you will.
‘Marriage Story’ revolves around Charlie (Driver), who is a theater director in New York, and Nicole (Johansson), who is an actress. Nicole and Charlie have a son together, Henry (Azhy Robertson), whom they adore. The film starts with Nicole about to leave the family’s home in New York for Los Angeles, where she’ll be filming a TV pilot. She is taking Henry with her, and although the understanding is that the two will return to New York after her work is done, the act of dissolving the marriage is already in progress. Nicole and Charlie want a friendly separation, with minimal impact on Henry. But once Nicole reaches Los Angeles, she connects with a divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a shred lawyer, who convinces her that she deserves much more than what she might have made herself believe. And from then on, the tension between Charlie and Nicole escalates as both try to keep custody of their son. Initially, it seems Nicole is the one who is more aggressive, but soon Charlie too becomes acrimonious and angry. What follows is a series of confrontational scenes, mostly passive-aggressive, but a few real in-your-face kind. One particular scene, which might very well be the scene of the year, stands out in which both Nicole and Charlie blame each other of the nastiest things possible.
Noah Baumbach has always been known to be a master at understanding the dynamics of dysfunctional families. In ‘Marriage Story’, he shows, he also has a great understanding of the complexities of love, marriage and separation. I was particularly amazed at how adroitly he navigates the maze of emotions in the film. You have to understand that the film is not just about those high-pitch moments where Charlie and Nicole are having a shouting match. The film also has these beautiful tender moments, where there isn’t much dialogue. Baumbach’s writing is so powerful that many a times, a glance is enough to communicate thousand words.
Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson act their heart out in the film. This is easily their career best performances. To be honest, the film would not work without their tremendous turns as sparring couples. They make every word uttered believable. Laura Dern is also great in a supporting turn that will most likely earn her a lot of accolades, including Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
There’s so much of depth in ‘Marriage Story’ that it is difficult to explain everything in words. There’s heartbreak, there are emotional outbursts, there’s passion, there’s grief, there’s anger, there’s regret. But all said and done, in the end, ‘Marriage Story’ might just be about what it is to be human. We are flawed. We are selfish. We make mistakes. Most of us are ambitious too. So, when two flawed and ambitious people start living under the same roof, there are bound to be differences and arguments. And if you are asking yourself: who between Charlie and Nicole was at fault? The answer is neither. Their only fault was that, just like us, they are humans.