Marriage Story Is Proof We've Had Enough Movies About Rich White Artists
When the film festivals came to an end and the early forecasts for Oscar predictions rolled in, one movie felt like it dominated: Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s latest for Netflix, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The performances were lauded – particularly Laura Dern in the supporting role of Johansson’s divorce lawyer – and it feels like the film is destined to not only steamroll the awards cycle, but probably have a long life afterwards. Having seen the film, the praise is not misplaced: it’s tightly edited, well written, filled with a stunning score and expert performances. But the question is... why do we care?
Here's the problem and I hope I'm not alone in this: I am simply running out of empathy for fictional characters who live in New York and Los Angeles, have a lot of money and work in the arts. It’s not that these people can’t have problems – of course they can – the issue is whether these problems are the ones that, when committed to film, say the most about modern society. I would argue that they do not, that the experiences of two artists and the complications of a bicoastal divorce are not the mirror society needs at this time. It would almost be possible to forgive it if the only couple of colour we see in the film – two Latinx extras – are shown as violent and abrasive when the camera cuts to them in an LA divorce court.
It's not just Marriage Story either: every film Noah Baumbach makes seems to hinge on problems I simply cannot fathom the universality of. In Mistress America the collapse of Brooke’s restaurant and the ensuing financial hoo-ha just feels too bespoke; in While We’re Young the machinations of emasculated filmmakers feel wildly unimportant to the grand scheme of things; Frances Ha feels deliberately, knowingly miniature, but even then whole sections of the film leave me cold. I love a lot of the same things Baumbach loves: I love that Charlie buys his theatre company Mud coffee – hell, I love downtown Manhattan theatre companies! – and that Nichole leaves her tea in a Zabar’s mug. I love stories about New Yorkers trying to make it so much that I literally moved there to do it myself. I respect his love of Broadway, casting theatre stars in major films, and I think comedies of manners and neurosis are noble creatures. But I also feel the world of third-wave coffee, delicatessens and Upper West Side therapy has been done to death and does not speak to as much of the human condition as the people wading through it themselves seem to think.
If there was an ability to ban movies featuring plays, I would do everything in my power to make it happen: just because Chekhov got away with it doesn't mean its still worth trotting out. Baumbach, to his credit, does a relatively good job of showing what an odd revival of a Greek tragedy probably would look like if staged at Theatre For A New Audience, but characters creating art on film just feels so congratulatory: to watch the world’s most successful actress play a starlet excelling in her first pilot in LA just feels like a chance to pat each other on the back and talk about how hard it’s been for them. Baumbach is not the only filmmaker guilty and Marriage Story not the only symptom of the larger plague: I felt it about La La Land, Clouds Of Sils Maria, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. It all falls into the same class of sycophancy about artists and creativity and wealth and the dangers of yuppies being together. These films are not inherently bad, but they do not open up the world to viewers the way something like, say, Tangerine, The Florida Project or Moonlight did and continue to do. The sort of projects, and subject matters, that could do with a major director's weight thrown behind them to make.
One of the film’s most annoyingly underused motifs also shows Baumbach's hubris. The cast of Charlie's (Driver) Broadway play function both as a Greek chorus in their production of Elektra and also in the film: a nice, fantastical touch. But they only do it twice and not always at the moments when time passes most, nor do they act to expand upon large events taking place off screen as an actual greek chorus would do. It also feels trite to suggest a divorce has any of the same gravitas as, say, the warfare, trauma and familial bloodlust of the Greek classics. Marriage Story wants to turn Nichole into an avatar for every suffering woman the way Sophocles made Antigone the figure of every spurned minority and Driver's Charlie into the avatar of every man.
The problem is, their lives are exceptional in a way even Antigone's or Medea's weren't: anyone can be caught pleading for mercy, but few people will experience the financial ease of Nichole (Johannson) and Charlie dealing with divorce in two states. A speech from Laura Dern about motherhood, in which she suggests the Virgin Mary is the basis for all misogyny, is... not inaccurate, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a particularly insightful addition to the discussion of modern toxic patriarchal norms. It is trying to be Emilia's vitriol against husbands at the end of Othello, but instead it just feels a bit like a subpar Twitter thread. Their privilege is rarely checked or acknowledged, while the plight of others is never really addressed even slightly. It all feels very worthy, hoping insight will outweigh specificity, but it's something we have, literally, seen before.
There are other motifs that don’t work. Late in the film, Baumbach also uses two songs from Company, presumably both as a homage to another great work about the complexities of modern monogamy and also because they say something about the characters. But the problem is they don’t really: having Nichole perform "You Could Drive A Person Crazy", effectively in full, adds nothing to her character or to her place at that point in the story. It's a song about thirsty young lovers of an aloof gadabout, which is not the mood when she sings it moments after finalising her divorce. Adam Driver’s less grounded but more narratively relevant performance of the show’s final number, "Being Alive", is great, but it puts a very crucial moment in his character’s arc into the recycled words of Sondheim and it doesn’t fit as perfectly as you want. Charlie, after all, was not as incompetent with human intimacy as Company's Bobby was, nor is this a story about him learning to love: it's about him learning to transform marital love into something else. It's a real instance of something looking diminished, rather than comparable to, the material it references. They might as well have sat in a cinema and watched a full scene of Kramer Vs Kramer.
What is better is Johansson's nuanced monologue about all the reasons she wants to leave Driver. It is probably the film’s best moment, full of insight and fragility and given time to breathe. It feels like it uses Nichole's very specific experience as a way of realising that she, like many other women, has been made to feel subsidiary to a man's needs. Dern’s performance is also exceptional, doing a tightrope walk between performatively saccharine and actually, genuinely kind. Julie Hagerty as Johansson's mother, Sandra, is also a constant delight, managing to turn her very Hagerty-ness into a way of exploring a very special type of matriarchal patrician. Adam Driver, too, fully wades into the sadness of Charlie: fully realising a man who could very easily be played as castrated, dour and feeble. Then again, it's an avatar for Baumbach himself to explore his own divorce, so was there much chance of the part feeling truly meek?
Marriage Story is, fundamentally, a good piece of cinema. It feels competent, technically excellent, even, and Baumbach is a safe pair of hands who guides you with real chutzpah, empathy and subtlety through these lives. But we've been here before. A lot. Not just with Woody Allen or Nora Ephron, but in Ibsen and Chekhov and Stoppard. The disintegration of love is a timeless topic, one we could write about infinitely and yet with no real satisfactory ending. But how it manifests in white, heterosexual couples has been done to death. I feel like I know more about how two people living in Lenox Hill would settle the end of a marriage than I do anyone else in the world. Love is never done, but it's a universal condition for a reason.