American writer-director, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a third-person view of a couple we never see together. It isn’t a falling apart story or even a ‘what went wrong’ letter of regret. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are somewhere between their last fight and their first court hearing. In their quest to live their dreams while raising their son (Henry) together – tension builds up between the couple and they end up fighting too often.
Of all the things Marriage Story chooses to be real with, one that stands out is the ugliness. Not for a moment do we not believe in the stories Charlie and Nicole tell us. Both are correct, for both are artists; all they know are opinions and provocation of thought. Through its small imperfections, Noah Baumbach’s story makes us fall for the couple. As a lengthy narration starts the film with the only traces of flashback we get, we learn of Charlie’s polite way of telling people that food is stuck in their teeth and Nicole’s absoluteness while cutting her family’s hair. Charlie is a theatre director par excellence who enjoys being Henry’s father but often ends up getting lost in his own world. Nicole is the star actress in his theatre who is equally brilliants in handling any situation at home or any ‘family s**t’ and ‘really’ listens when someone is talking. In a leaf out of Sean Maguire’s book (Good Will Hunting), you would smile as the two get into the idiosyncratic meaning of Sean’s ‘imperfections’. You begin to like them.
But then they are criminals. Marriage Story gets ugly fast. There are lawyers, arguments, settlements, manipulations, deals, and regrets. Noah Baumbach’s version of growing out of love is judicial yet cold. It is so careful yet so smooth. You could be bouncing around sides – for there are now two – and yet never decide the side to stay on. The secret is you know you would always return. In this third-person viewing, you question if you are Henry – the child of this marriage – for you know nothing of the past as well; he jumps around the sides too.
In its skill of separating the worlds of that beginning narration and the rest of the movie, Marriage Story moves on from nostalgia. It is like an old feud taken care of. The world almost forgotten is New York – where the happy family once stayed. The world which builds the new reality is Los Angeles – where the separation takes place. The intimacy of art in theatre versus the commercialization of looks in show business; the voice-less versus the speech-less; the past versus the future.
Sequences are lengthy, everything is brought to the table and yet there is no closure. Even as the audience, you can feel that suffocation. The ‘what has this come to?’ question becomes so loud, Charlie and Nicole can’t hear their demands anymore. In one of the many gut-wrenching sequences which make no eye dwindle from the screen, Nicole explains to Nora Fanshaw (the commanding Laura Dern) – her lawyer – what led to the fallout. In her words, were her excuses; in her pauses were her answers. Scarlett Johansson takes you back to Lost in Translation, but now more experienced and less broken. Adam Driver runs the movie, for his conscience challenges the test of intentions the longest. Both complement each other so well, you wouldn’t even want the happy ending, just to watch the two artists complete their acting masterpieces in isolation.
Come award season, when Joker, The Irishman, and Parasite will be making waves of nominations and award speeches, Marriage Story will remain that one intimate experience of the year which will out outlive red carpets and monologues. In Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of a family struggling to live together, she reminded us of the luxury of one that does. Love is difficult but it is also worth it.