Everyone dotes on LA for having lots of space. Eventually, even the most nonchalant mention of “space” is enough to be interpreted satirically. But it certainly is a calculated motif. In a relationship, there is always a power dynamic. A constant struggle to take up space and assert oneself. To be important and remembered for doing something grand. In fact, the 2019 winner of Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, secured her win with the simple, yet profound statement that we should be teaching young girls to ’take up space.’ But what exactly is space and who dictates the ownership of it? Can this allocation of space be done amicably?
These must have been just some of the many questions that Noah Baumbach had to grapple with before writing this film. Heck, even regarding the fly-on-the-wall cinematography and blocking, space is literally treated as a precious commodity on set. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who play Nicole and Charlie Barber respectively, masterfully ride the wave of levity and lament. They savor every word that seemingly pours out of them, reinforcing Baumbach’s filmmaking mantra that every element has a purpose. Even recurring monopoly boards further the narrative that in a capitalist society, there’s an unspoken expectation to take up space, take credit, compete, and win.
Charlie, an up-and-coming Broadway director, is married to Nicole, his star actress. Their plans to separate are confounded by the fact that their conflicting goals could intrude on the life of their child, Henry, whom they love and adore. Charlie is caught in the middle of moving his play to Broadway. Nicole, on the other hand, has moved with Henry to Los Angeles, where her quirky family and new TV gig are located. As the film progresses and the two inexorably drift apart, both literally and metaphorically in a climactic argument scene, miscommunications emerge with meddlesome, hostile attorneys complicating the falling out, which forces Nicole and Charlie to approach a crossroads and make an unprecedented decision: fight harder or compromise.
As expected of someone who has climbed the ranks in the experimental theater business, Charlie is a man of pretension, who has long forgotten the needs of his wife. Her voice stifled, Nicole desperately yearns to take up more space. At a screen test for her TV gig, Nicole pitches ideas and pushes the creative dialogue forward, even expectantly asking if she can wear the director’s hat, which she is finally able to do post-divorce. She admits she wishes she could be like George Harrison’s wife: content with simply being a mother and wife. But she sardonically adds that she couldn’t even remember her name. Laura Dern’s award-winning performance as Nora Fanshaw, Nicole’s lawyer, even includes a scathing rebuke to the Judeo-Christian normalization of a father’s absence and a mother’s perfection.
Whether or not Baumbach intended for this message to be conveyed, many view the Barbers’ divorce in this movie as inevitable due to inherent gender differences in heterosexual relationships. Societal expectations never fail to shove women back down to a subordinate position, such as an actor working under a director. Hence, heteropessimism emerges. When Nicole is in this position, it’s easy to feel sympathy for her. But because of the masterful, twisted nature of Baumbach’s narrative, power switches hands multiple times. Nora traps Charlie in a corner by undercutting his argument that his family is based in New York. But then Charlie gets an equally hostile attorney. By the end of the film, Charlie feels lost without Nicole, as if she were the cogs in his brain that helped him churn out MacArthur Grant-level creativity.
Musically, Randy Newman’s score evokes sentiments of whimsicality, foreshadowing the lighthearted nature that this film tries to adhere to but inevitably drifts away from to boldly confront the serious nature of the film’s premise. But as a dramedy, Marriage Story succeeds in finding an emotional balance without unceremoniously forcing a rigid formula upon the film.
The opening montage’s randomness inexplicably makes it heartfelt, and the voiceover is written prosaically but recited like pure poetry. The film makes great use of its child actor by setting aside enough “awww” moments that all parents can relate to, such as Henry’s refusal to sleep without his dad by his side and Henry’s perpetual urge to inquisitively interrupt his dad with haphazard spelling questions. Even when Charlie makes small talk with Henry after seeing a tearjerker, he ponders if they cried the same four times, presaging the different ways that people process sadness and attesting to the smart, introspective quality of the screenplay. However, this film is not without fault. The shot at the very end that pans to the sky is cliché, the pacing is a bit uneven in the first half, and the final scene fast forwards into the future in an abrupt manner that detracts from the poignant influence that gradual changes can have on viewers.
“Getting divorced… is like a death without a body.” Divorce law and its endless, complicated loopholes act as a noose to hang innocent people in the process. “The system rewards bad behavior,” Nora quips at one point, and she corroborates this by fighting tooth and nail for a settlement that even her client Nicole thinks is too far-reaching. Despite my frustrations with the way the legal system is set up, there were no hard feelings towards Baumbach’s ingenious way of weaving complex legal explanations into the story, unlike Adam McKay’s hackneyed tactic of breaking the fourth wall to speak didactically to viewers. But Baumbach astutely reminds us that the experiences of the Barber family, while relatable, still don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to being representative of experiences in all types of divorced couples (e.g. people of color and low socioeconomic status), which the judge in the courtroom scene alludes to.
Witnessing Charlie and Nicole interact with each other teaches us an important lesson. While it is understood that all is fair in love and war, this film allows us to peer into a scenario, where both love and conflict coexist and where fairness is simply an overlooked suggestion. Nonetheless, when Charlie has a note for Nicole but tries to restrain himself, Nicole can see through his facade. When Charlie doesn’t know what to order from an unfamiliar menu, Nicole steps in. Nicole cuts Charlie’s hair, and Charlie cleans up Nicole’s sporadic messes. Even at the very end when Nicole has a boyfriend, she still rushes to tie Charlie’s shoes. This demonstration of habitual love presents the conundrum that one can never 100% hate or love someone. Both extremes always coexist in some proportions like yin and yang. Marriage Story is able to amplify the beauty of juxtaposition because it is rooted in painful familiarity.