NYFF Review: “Marriage Story” Directed by Noah Baumbach

Including Top Ten Broken-Marriage / Divorce Movies

by HelenHighly

So: Marriage Story, a stylish romantic dramedy written and directed by Noah Baumbach with an all-star cast led by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver and featuring top-notch talent such as Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn, opened as the centerpiece of the 2019 New York Film Festival. Helen Highly Loathes this movie. I think perhaps I wouldn’t loathe it so much if everyone else wasn’t loving and lauding it so much. Sigh. Something about the gushing acceptance of this film into the “canon” of broken-marriage and/or divorce-themed movies creates a feeling of outrage in me – a feeling much deeper than any inspired by the self-consciously sentimental moments in the film.

Loving family in "Marriage Story"

Loving family in “Marriage Story”

But, to be fair (to my disdain), I did immediately feel insulted by what my directly-after-watching-the-film tweets expressed as “infuriating banality – worse than regular banality.” I didn’t expect to see so many credible and respected critics lavish praise on this film, which makes me feel déjà vu all over again – reminding me of when I stood alone in aggressively disliking Carol, directed by Todd Hanes. (Prediction: everyone believed that film would win an Academy Award for Best Picture and despite all the gushing, it didn’t, and I predict the same here.)

Part of my criticism in my Carol review was my argument against critics who were erroneously declaring the film to be “Hitchcockian,” and I wrote a detailed break-down of how and why that was untrue, which I will skip here, because in this case the person comparing the director to the Master of thrillers and warped love stories is director Noah Baumbach himself. In the post-film Q&A, Baumbach declared that Marriage Story had “hidden genres baked into it,” naming thrillers, horror, screwball comedy and absurdism (wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong) and then adding “it’s also like a Hitchcock movie.” That is where my head exploded. Really, there should be a law requiring at least a five-year waiting period before anyone can compare anyone to Hitchcock, kind of like declaring someone a saint. And it ought to be a crime for directors to compare themselves to Hitchcock. But that’s not the basis for my distaste for this film – just the cherry on top.

Scarlett Johannsson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story"

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in “Marriage Story”

Baumbach’s movie gives us an intimate view of an end-of-marriage agony-of-divorce story wrapped in a privileged-NYC-life vs privileged-LA-life scenario. His script manages to be a star-vehicle for some of America’s best acting talent; it’s a very-showy showcase for Adam Driver’s raw energy and Scarlett Johansson’s tour-de-force heartbreak, but as I said of Cate Blanchett after Carol, they don’t need this self-important display; they are better than this over-wrought cliché of a movie.

Writer Director Noah Baumbach

Writer Director Noah Baumbach

And that’s even true for Baumbach, who has an impressive talent for putting words together. But alas, he needs some fresh ideas. I appreciate that it’s not easy trying to be the voice of your generation, and there is always a hunger in audiences to crown the next king, but sorry, I don’t think Baumbach has even earned knighthood at this point. Clever is not the same as genius. It’s ironic that the lead character wins a “genius grant” in the film at such a young age – perhaps Baumbach projecting his wishes for himself. But it’s pure fiction.

As for Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn, they are only reprising the same old personas we have relished watching them play over the years; nothing new to see here folks. I can only assume that they both agreed to be in this film as a late-career last-chance to remind America what beloved characters they are, and again… there is no need; they’ve already done it in films better than this one, and this story has already been told too many times in films far greater than this non-“masterwork” (as some have called it).

Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn at NYFF with "Marriage Story"

Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn at NYFF with “Marriage Story”

The world already has Kramer vs Kramer, the quintessential divorce-with-a-kid story; we don’t need another one. And we already have Annie Hall, the quintessential lovers-in-trouble torn between New York and LA story; no one is going to do it better. Throw in the couples-with-competing-careers theme and Marriage Story becomes a full-on trope fest. For the record, let me list all the now-classic films that have mined these territories – as either drama or comedy or both (and a few others not-so-classic that are far more deserving of extravagant praise than Marriage Story).

The Ten Best Movies to See Instead of Marriage Story:

  1. Kramer vs Kramer
  2. Annie Hall
  3. La La Land (Best Picture close but no cigar – like Marriage Story will be)
  4. One True Thing (After Kramer vs Kramer, Meryl Streep makes the list twice and do we really need to keep trying to top her? In this film the child-torn-between-alienated-parents is older, with stronger impact.)
  5. The Way We Were (NY vs LA, check; competitive careers and ethical standards, check; more of a love story than a divorce story, check; they don’t have a child but wait… they throw one in at the end, so check. But let’s get real; this movie has So. Much. More. going on that makes it worth watching — even worth watching again and again. Honestly, how many times can one bear to sit through Marriage Story?)
    Note: A case could be made to add Funny Girl to the list, which would make Barbara Streisand another two-time end-of-marriage classic-film winner.

    "The Way We Were" with Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand

    “The Way We Were” with Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand

  6. Scenes From a Marriage (a Bergman genre-defining classic truly deserving of the much-overused word “masterful”)
    Note: Scarlett Johansson is lovely and compelling but she is not in the same league as Streep and Ullman.

    "Scenes From a Marriage" by Ingmar Bergman

    “Scenes From a Marriage” by Ingmar Bergman

  7. The Wife (a Bergman-influenced film that earns its inheritance, with ten times the intelligence and profundity of Marriage Story. Glenn Close’s performance in this film is stunning and perhaps the final authentic word in broken-marriage career-challenged wives.)
  8. Le Mepris (Contempt — a gorgeous and magnificent film by Jean-Luc Godard, with a storyline similar to Marriage Story – down to the opening breakup around a revised production of a Greek tragedy in which the husband is auteur and the wife stars)

    Godard's "Le Mepris" (Contempt)

    Godard’s “Le Mepris” (Contempt)

  9. L.A. Story (example of what a true screwball-comedy meets romantic-heartbreak movie looks like and a treatise on L.A.-lifestyle jokes that pack a serious punch), and/or War of the Roses, which has become the ultimate depiction of the pain and dark comedy of divorce. Note to Baumbach: This is absurdist comedy; your movie is absurd only in its pretension.
  10. It’s Complicated (again with Meryl Streep. Sorry Scarlett, find your own genre.)
  11. One more for good luck: The End of the Affair, which isn’t a super-close story match, but in terms of depicting marital love that transcends divorce, with devastating effect, it merits a mention. And Ralph Fiennes with Julianne Moore – that’s the definition of on-screen chemistry, which btw seems to me completely lacking in Marriage Story.)

    "Annie Hall" by Woody Allen

    “Annie Hall” by Woody Allen

The other thing that all the films in the list above have going for them (with exception of La La Land) is that they have the historic timeframe with the associated literary conventions of their day to justify their lily-whiteness. Marriage Story points out its own fatal flaw in a domestic courtroom scene; after listening to the opposing $950-per-hour lawyers bicker endlessly, the judge finally interrupts and says, “There are people waiting to have their cases heard who do not have the ‘means’ you do.” duh. Hashtag: White People’s Problems.

Scarlett Johannson and Laura Dern in "Marriage Story"

Scarlett Johannson and Laura Dern in “Marriage Story”

And outside of the lack of on-screen chemistry, the banal clichés and tired lawyer jokes, this was a major factor in preventing me from caring about these characters; they are the embodiment of white privilege, and in today’s day, especially when casting the racially conflicted cities of L.A. and New York as characters in the story, to ignore any issue of class or race or fail to provide any realistic backdrop of social/political context… it’s both ridiculous and offensive and ultimately invalidates any effort at credibility. I would say that this makes this story comparable to an animated Disney fairytale more than an authentic emotional account, except now even Disney has finally integrated and presented a black princess.

White People's Problems in "Marriage Story"

White People’s Problems in “Marriage Story”

To watch these two feuding spouses argue over whose Halloween costume for the kid is better (and more expensive) and who is taking the kid to a better neighborhood for the best Halloween treats is a disgusting display, in my opinion. Spoiler alert: The father loses that battle and is seen schlepping the kid through an inappropriately grownup Times-Square-ish neighborhood (albeit somewhere in L.A.), where a liquor store sales clerk gives the child a free lighter as a treat. Hilarious! Not. Touching? Not. Stupid and insensitive to the very-real and very-dangerous and humiliating class issues surrounding Halloween trick-or-treating for today’s children? Yes, that’s what it is.

"Kramer vs Kramer" divorce movie

“Kramer vs Kramer” divorce movie

Is Noah Baumbach obliged to depict racial inequity in his romance movie? No of course he’s not – not unless he goes on and on about its contemporary authenticity and selects real-life troubled cities as its location. And other critics should also be ashamed of not noticing that even on the streets of New York City there seems to be not one person of color within facial-recognition distance – certainly none with a talking role. Just saying.

“The Wife” with Glenn Close

Following through on its all-too-adorable entertainment industry setting, the film ends with not one but two Stephen Sondheim songs from the 1970’s musical Company – one sung by divorced mom and the other by divorced dad. Variety called those back-to-back scenes “haunting,” and I suggest that might be true from a white-as-a-ghost perspective.

As for emotional power: There is a scene with the little boy reading aloud his mother’s handwritten list of hipster-sweet “Things I Love About Charlie” (his father), which is nausea-inducing. Then father Charlie overhears and listens to his son read the list of reasons his mother loves his father, which is full-blown puke-worthy, and then the father enters the scene and helps the boy pronounce the big words in the list of reasons for his father’s lovability — which the father had never read before and is now hearing for the first time from the mouth of his young son, which is choke-on-your-vomit-and-die worthy. (Just think for a moment of the revelatory and climactic scenes in last year’s The Wife, and recall how few words, how carefully scripted, how elegantly performed to such breath-taking effect, how non-cloying and unobvious and deeply stirring. Marriage Story fails at all of that.)

Have I gone back in time and am I watching an After School Special? Do they still exist? I think not. I imagine I am showing my age with that reference. But if this movie makes sense anywhere it would be on TV as an After School Special that a parent would force a kid to watch instead of his preferred cowboy series. It’s a reductive lesson in why you should love your parents despite their being self-centered dipshits.

"End of the Affaire," with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes

“End of the Affaire,” with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes

But seriously: What is at stake in this movie?! It seems that the worst possible outcome for anybody involved would still entail their living better, more beautiful, more satisfying and comfortable lives than anyone I know. Everyone is young and attractive and talented and well-positioned for a full, wonderful life ahead of them. The marriage was terrific while it lasted, both exes have already found their rebound romances, they both already have new and impressive career opportunities, they have plenty of emotional and financial resources to soothe the blow of the breakup, and the big divorce antagonism is revealed to be gratuitous game-playing that doesn’t seriously injure anyone. The deepest dramatic point seems to be that people change and grow, especially when they’re young adults.

The harshest effect on the kid seems to be inconsistent bowel movements, a problem fixed by special reward-gifts from mom (of which dad disapproves — ooh, conflict!) and his confusion over why they suddenly have so many plants around (to impress the divorce social worker). Truth is, this kid will likely win by growing up a little bit less of a spoiled brat than he would have been without the divorce, although without suffering any real, character-building challenges.

It’s all a lot of meaningless nothing, and my sense is that the harshest consequences will be to the careers of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who I believe have both taken a step backward in their development as serious actors. I know that romantic dramedy is not intended to be heavy, thought-provoking fare, but this film is more pretentious and empty than most of its ilk, and I anticipate that five years from now it will not be found on anyone’s list of Best Broken-Marriage Movies.

Laura Dern is the best part of "Marriage Story"

Laura Dern is the best part of “Marriage Story”

So, my diatribe aside, it’s fair to mention a few good points in this movie. The best part is Laura Dern as a feminist divorce attorney. She’s got some of the funniest lines in the film, including a rant using the Virgin Mary and God as the origin of sexual bias in parenting, saying that God is the typical father who doesn’t show up. Ha. That’s a good one. She even manages to make the line “What you’re doing is an act of courage” a treasure-trove of comic and emotional nuance. Kudos to Laura Dern for milking every moment she is on the screen.

What else? Hmm… Laura Dern is awesome and what else? Adam Driver is always awesome and this movie does not deserve him. But I will say that when he breaks down and cries, it’s the only time I felt anything in this film, and that was quite an achievement. Oh, if you are a classic-theater lover like me, the opening bit about the revised theater production of Electra is pretty cool, and thankfully given more than a few seconds on screen; we get to hear enough dialogue to make a vague thematic tie-in to issues of female fury and women’s pursuit of justice.

"Marriage Story" press conference at NYFF

“Marriage Story” press conference at NYFF

But in the end, the most encouraging thing I can say about this movie is that as a filmgoer you will be spared listening to Noah Baumbach’s self-congratulatory pontificating afterward in a live Q&A session. But you can find plenty of that blabbery by reading all the other film reviews. However, if majority consensus means anything, it’s safe to assume that they are all correct and I completely misunderstand, Helen being the Highly crass heartless heathen that she is. So be it. Go see this movie at your own brain-rotting peril.

Marriage Story premieres in theaters on Nov. 6, 2019. The film premieres on Netflix on Dec. 6, 2019.

Sorry to sound so sour. Want to read about a movie released to theaters around the same time as Marriage Story that I liked a lot (despite criticism from others)? Helen Highly Recommends Motherless Brooklyn.


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