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"Marriage Story" Review

A recurring issue I'm having with many of the most lauded films recently is how people are so enraptured by the spectacle of impressive acting or aesthetics that they don't seem to realize how deeply flawed the screenplays have been. A prime example was Joker where Joaquin Phoenix's all-in performance and the production's meticulous Scorsese's-New York-in-the-late-Seventies-early-Eighties production design and cinematography beguiled people into not noticing the extremely unreliable narrator storytelling left one questioning whether much of what we saw was even real and there's no way this guy could've been Batman's arch-nemesis.

This came to mind while considering my thoughts about Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical film about a director and actress ending their marriage (he was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh before taking up with muse and current lauded actress-filmmaker Greta Gerwig) which is currently in contention for six Oscars including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Score. While lavishly written and movingly performed, in the end it doesn't amount to anything meaningful and really should be honestly titled Divorce Story.

Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are Charlie and Nicole Barber, a couple living in New York City with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). He's a rising theater director and she's a former teen actress who has enjoyed career rehabilitation appearing in her productions, leading to a role in a TV pilot back in Los Angeles. The film opens with montages of each one listing what they love about the other, showing what appears to be a happy family only to ultimately reveal they're in a marriage mediator's office working through their separation.

She takes their son back to LA and stays with her mother (Julie Hagerty) while he works on preparing his show which is moving to Broadway. While they had discussed amicably splitting without involving lawyers, on a visit to LA she ambushes him with divorce papers prepared by a ruthless shark of an attorney, Nora (Laura Dern). Pushed into a corner, Charlie is forced to hire his own counsel, first meeting with a pricey shark (Ray Liotta), before settling on kindly, but elderly, Bert (Alan Alda).

As the process grinds on, Charlie slowly realizes how terribly the deck is stacked against him. Nicole was from LA, grew up and worked there, they had been married there, and being back with their son, working on a TV series, she's got all the home field advantages and his concept that they were a New York family and they'd be coming back takes a beating. However, as the legal beagles take over the case and start getting nasty on behalf of their clients, we can tell that the couple aren't happy that it's come to this. But while there are flare-ups, outbursts and a shouting match, they don't really seem to hate each other.

While Baumbach's script gives everyone plenty of meaty dialog and scenes to play and he elicits top-notch performances from everyone - Alda should've been nominated as well - I kept having the recurring thought, "What is the point of this?" I waited for some massive shoe to drop that Charlie was the villain, but other than being too focused on his theater company and having a fling with the stage manager after his wife had shut him out, there's nothing to deserve the treatment Nicole subjects him to.

She's selfish, self-centered, and conniving (as revealed when Charlie discovers, as he's frantically trying to secure a lawyer, that she's burned the top candidates by meeting with them first) and that makes her hard to root for as her only acceptable solution would've been for Charlie to sacrifice his career to relocate for her.

But unsympathetic characters aren't what undercuts Marriage Story for me, it's that none of them have much in the way of arcs; no one ends up much different in the end from where they start. We wait for some tangible rationale for their split, but it never comes. It seems they could've communicated better in their relationship and tried to get on the same page, but the overall impression is that while they may not have loved each other enough to stay married, they didn't dislike each other enough to spend the small fortune the divorce cost them to execute.

Frankly, if not for Henry, none of this movie would happen - she would've gone to LA, he would've stayed in NYC, they would've grown their careers, and the lawyers would've had to split up other couples for fun and profit. (Now I think the movie should've been entitled Half-Hearted Custody Battle.) The final beat of the movie, involving an untied shoelace, really shows how meaningless the previous two-plus hours of drama were.

The movie Marriage Story has been frequently compared to is 1979's five Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer where selfish mother Meryl Streep abandons Dustin Hoffman and young son only to return over a year later to demand custody. That film was about a man trying to become Mr. Mom in a time where they didn't do the housework, but Charlie is portrayed as a great cook and attentive father. Steep is also the unmitigated heavy, while Nicole is just conceited like an actress would be.

While Half-Hearted Custody Battle Marriage Story doesn't add up to a sum greater than its parts, it's still worth a watch for the ace performances and, ironically, for Baumbach's script which almost gets away with camouflaging its general irrelevance by being so well-observed about the surface details overlaying its empty core.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.


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