Marriage Story ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

To quote a friend, Baumbach makes movies that are "suspiciously pleasurable for me.” It’s for the same reasons as Vadim (“faultless punchlines,” pared-down scenes, fragmentary editing, etc.), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit we both essentially come from the same overeducated liberal arts milieu. I don’t share his family-of-the-arts pedigree, and the class privilege differs in key ways, but the references and the hyper-specific strain of anxiety and the petty dysfunction are more or less comparable. It’s basically guaranteed I’m going to get something from anything Baumbach makes. It also means my opinion of his work will be inherently suspect to those who find no common ground with him.

That said, Marriage Story slightly disappoints for me, especially since it concludes one of the most compelling streaks of filmmaking this decade. It’s mostly because he’s operating in a muted formal register here that’s thematically appropriate (“the point" is to linger and remain on the fraught emotions rather than cut away from them) but still a little too staid for my tastes. All of the scenes are longer and devoid of the spiky energy I prefer. It’s generous in terms of performance—keying into the principal actors and providing each of them their showcase, implicitly allowing them to author their respective characters—and yet it sometimes feels like that’s all the film has to offer. It all feels self-consciously “mature” in a way that, if I were being particularly cynical, can certainly broaden appeal and court acclaim. In other words, it's the Baumbach film for people who don’t generally like Baumbach. (A buddy theorized that the jaggedness of Baumbach’s work this decade alienates plenty of folks. Whether or not that's true, Marriage Story does feel like a reaction to that style.)

But it’s still, you know, good. (Again, I’m in the tank.) I initially bristled at how few perfect throwaway lines there were, but a second viewing confirmed that there were a few that had slipped my mind. (My favorite on this last watch was Charlie insisting that Henry didn’t need a present for pooping because “it’s its own reward.”) Driver and ScarJo are as good as advertised, but this might be one of the best supporting casts* Baumbach has ever put together. Liotta** and Dern are one thing, but Alda, who’s not hiding his Parkinson’s like a fucking champion, really nails the soft-hearted touch of someone who’s been around the block enough times to know how bad it can get and genuinely wants to ease the burden. Case in point: his insistence to Charlie that he cave on custody because “time is on his side,” i.e. Henry will grow up and have opinions of his own and might go to school on the East Coast, is so honest and emotionally leveling, MRA-types be damned. The serving-papers and knife trick scenes are career highlights. “Fuck the space!” feels like a definitive statement about L.A. in a way that might transcend the text. The Big Fight is perfectly fine***, but it pales in comparison to the courtroom battle, which is cringingly rough, mostly because their resentment is being communicated (and exaggerated) via a third party, e.g. the claim about Nicole’s alcohol consumption is such a low blow, and yet broadly makes sense as a legitimate concern from Charlie, who came from a family of alcoholics. In short, the highs are glorious, and I have no real objection with this film being his big success.

There’s always at least one scene in any Baumbach movie that hits me on a hyper-personal level. It comes early in Marriage Story: after Charlie finishes reading Stuart Little to Henry in bed with Nicole, he’s sent away because Henry would rather spend time with his mom. Henry then quickly offers to let Charlie come back and read to him later, out of a vague sense of fairness and possibly intuiting he’s hurt his father’s feelings. Later, Nicole apologizes for Henry, saying he’s going through a “mommy phase.” This eerily resembles my own family dynamic when I was younger, down to me being almost certain that I actually said, “Dad, you go away. Mom, you stay,” at some point. But I bet that isn't unique. Baumbach concisely communicates the unintended damage kids can inflict on their parents, and how that might subconsciously engender resentment down the line. The devastated look Driver wears when he’s closing the door, watching his son get on better with his soon-to-be ex-wife, says so much about complex father-son dynamics. It’s obviously not Henry’s fault that he prefers Nicole’s tenderness at a young age, and Charlie shouldn’t and doesn’t take this harmless rejection personally, but there’s still no way for it not to sting. It makes me wonder about how Charlie and Henry will get along when, say, he’s ten years older and looking at colleges, possibly on the East Coast. Just exactly how much bitterness has built up over time?
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*Baumbach’s comedy-nerd credentials come into play here: Robert Smiegel as the mediator, Rich Fulcher as the Judge, and Martha Kelly, who’s just doing patented bone-dry Martha Kelly schtick, as the Evaluator are all very welcome.

**The funniest semi-unintentional joke in the film is Liotta, in his Chantix commercial-ass voice, pronouncing Nora’s name like “NOAHRAHHH.”

***I know that this is the bit that absolutely destroys people, but I mostly got a kick out of Baumbach’s acerbic streak finally coming out of its shell. “You’re all the bad things about all of these people!” might be my biggest laugh in the entire film, and “You don’t want a voice, you just want to fucking complain about not having a voice” is so deliciously cruel that it put a guilty grin on my face. It weirdly feels like a relief when the venom starts to flow.