Marriage Story review

Ren vs Widow. With singing, for some reason.

Marriage Story is an intimate account of divorce. That sounds clear enough, but this is quite a hard film to categorise beyond that. The film that most often comes to mind about divorce is Kramer vs. Kramer, which remains in my mind harrowing, haunting and hard-to-watch. Perhaps I’ll get around to reviewing it for this site, only forty years too late.

Anyway, Marriage Story is not Kramer vs. Kramer, not at all. While the custody battle over a child with an American child’s haircut is central to both films, Kramer explicitly took the husband’s side. Marriage Story, despite being based on writer/director Noah Baumbach’s own divorce, is carefully even-handed.

The background lives are also quite markedly different. In Kramer, Dustin Hoffman’s character was an advertising executive (as we all know, this is how Hollywood tells audiences that someone is a Bad Person and a Bad Parent, rampant product placement hypocrisy notwithstanding). In this, Adam Driver is the theatre director husband and Scarlett Johansson the actor wife. They work in a small theatre company in New York and the income levels feel about the same as the Kramers, but beyond that, they could barely be more different.

The couple in Marriage Story is arty. Way arty. Never criticise anyone for writing what they know, but if you were being cruel you could say that Kramer feels the more grounded film, because the lives are more relatable to many. But this remains an honest film with engaging characters.

Driver and Johansson are pretty good. It’s nice to see them both doing something outside of their respective franchises, particularly Johansson, who’s spent most of the last decade playing a leather-clad fanboy fantasy with all the character depth of a spilt bottle of hand lotion.

It’s unfortunate that there is an inescapably stagey feel to many of the scenes and the sense of both acting. It doesn’t quite feel naturalistic somehow and on reflection it really feels that Baumbach is there in the room, workshopping the scenes without ever quite vanishing from the frame. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t good – it is. I need to see more Baumbach movies to prove this, but my feeling is that the reason the scenes between Driver and Johansson feel this way is that the director is understandably using his film for emotional catharsis. It seems unlikely to me, for example, that the emotional explosion near the end of the film ever happened in reality, but rather he wrote that to come to terms with all the dark feelings the divorce inevitably engendered. You do have to wonder how he and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his real-life ex-wife, will handle that scene if and when their son wants to see it. That is for them, of course, and watching this you can be left in no doubt of the emotional bravery of putting this on the screen.

This stagey feeling is mainly apparent whenever the leads are dominating the scenes. The supporting work from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as a pair of loathsome divorce lawyers are excellent. Alan Alda is (as is often the case) a wonderfully benign presence. Julie Hegarty as Johansson’s mother is just the right side of bearable as an irritating, interfering matriarch with good intentions.

There is a comically painful and awkward scene involving the serving of divorce papers which is typical of another big difference between this and Kramer. This film is funny. Despite the raw wounds on display, there’s a lot of genuinely funny humour. Despite my comments about staginess, you never forget that the painful divorce is happening in real life, with all the normal things that life throws at us. Except…

Going back to the question of what category the film sits in, it’s pretty clearly a drama. Some critics have praised it as genre-defying because it has the comedy, the drama, the melodrama and on a couple of occasions, it randomly turns into a musical.

Look, I’m not a fan of musicals. I don’t hate them and there are a few films that technically fit the definition of a musical that I love. But this was exemplary of what I don’t like about them. Genre-defying or not, there’s a time and a place to jump up and start caterwauling like a shit-faced uncle at a wedding. People do spontaneously sing whole songs from start to finish in real life, I’ve seen it happen more than once, but there’s a time and a place, right? Normally a time when you can’t feel your own face because you’re in a place with lots of whiskey, and are, you know, happy I haven’t met a whole lot of folks who start belting out the Great American Songbook while their relationships are catastrophically imploding. Just saying.

Anyway, it’s on Netflix, which has a great fast forward function, so don’t let that put you off too much. And if it’s your thing, it turns out that our proto-Sith Lord has a pretty good voice, so knock yourself out.

It will almost certainly make you cry, despite all the humour (although I’m not the most reliable indicator. I cry at bloody everything. Especially musicals). The scene that sums up what’s been lost is tough but beautifully handled. This is probably not the best movie to watch if your own relationship is in trouble, but if you’re solid, then it will make you hug your loved ones a little tighter.

Marriage Story then. Kylo Ren vs. Black Widow. With singing.

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