How Honesty and Optimism Made “Marriage Story” One of the Stand-Out Movies of 2019

Nearly 50 years ago, novelist Erich Segal and director Arthur Hiller brought us Love Story, a saccharine weepfest which filled cinemas but whose tragic-romantic saga bore little resemblance to the reality of relationships in all their weirdly compelling imperfection.

With Marriage Story — and the title is surely suggesting a contrast-and-compare with love stories in general, if not Love Story specifically — Noah Baumbach (who both directs and writes) abandons soft focus for a much sharper and more realistic, if not entirely unsentimental, image.

By opting to portray a relationship not in its wonderstruck early days but in the process of later disintegration, he gets to the heart of what it means: he is able to put love and hate, contentment and disappointment, self-interest and coupledom, alongside one another and compare them. The result is one of the finest movies of the year, in particular for its acting, editing, and music.

Much has been made of possible parallels to Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and indeed Marriage Story does track the divorce of a director (Adam Driver) from an actor (Scarlett Johansson), and they have one son just like the Baumbach-Leigh family, and alongside the narrative of the relationship there is some spirited criticism of the way the legal system handles these cases that feels like it is founded in experience, and so on and so forth.

But really, the extent to which it may be a film-à-clef is unimportant to its qualities. It would be a magnificent movie if it came from the imagination of someone who had never been married or divorced — though it is worth noting, for those who want to pick away at this angle, that while the film focuses rather more on the Driver character, and neither is really “in the wrong”, Johansson does emerge as the more sensible individual and perhaps the better parent of the two.

Both are outstanding, as they have to be in a movie almost entirely about them. Their characterisations are difficult to describe, and that’s what makes them so strong; they can’t be boiled down to a few adjectives, as even quite fine performances often can be.

Driver can often seem the weaker personality of the two, guileless and confused, but then there will be a scene where he counters that with fury, or commanding efficiency.

Johansson on the surface is maybe more confident — but she’s an actress within the movie too, remember, one just finding her feet in Hollywood again after a long absence, and it’s easy to surmise that her self-possession is a bit of a mask she is forcing herself to wear, so that she can get through the divorce. She knows she needs the outcome, but she’s not enjoying the process.

And when the mask slips, occasionally, we see someone just as guided as Driver is by immediate emotion, rather than objective calculation: she can be tender, or embarrassed, or childishly joyful in a song-and-dance routine for friends.

Inevitably the supporting players are less richly, deeply portrayed, but they’re strong without exception. Especially memorable are Laura Dern as Johansson’s lawyer (relentlessly sympathetic, apparently unable to erase her professional fake smile whatever the circumstances) and Alan Alda as one of Driver’s (much sharper than his genial, slightly distracted air suggests). The differences between them are highlighted when Dern orders kale salad for lunch, while old-school Alda asks for a BLT.

Also noteworthy are Julia Hagerty as Johansson’s determinedly optimistic mother, and Merritt Wever as a histrionic family friend who insists on rehearsing the service of divorce papers on Driver (and then, of course, is afflicted by stage-fright when she has to actually serve them). Best of all, perhaps, is Martha Kelly as an inspector sent to assess Driver’s relationship with his son, in the most out-and-out comic sequence of the movie: so careful is she not to influence what she is observing that she barely moves an inessential muscle or inflects her voice beyond a monotone, even as events descend into farce.

But this virtually flawless film is not just a showcase for its cast. Baumbach’s writing and his directorial style have a particular flavour that sets Marriage Story apart — it doesn’t quite feel like most other movies — and subtly reinforces a central point: the immersiveness of relationships. When you are in one you are never really out of it, however much you may think you are absorbed in something else.

Baumbach, similarly, draws us deeply into this couple’s marriage and never lets us leave, even in the few superficially unconnected scenes. There are few if any asides or digressions, or even shots of anything but the pair’s immediate surroundings. The gaze is unceasing.

With his screenplay, he takes what seems at first to be a decidedly theatrical approach: long scenes with discrete sets of characters who are generally present more or less from beginning to end, rather than walking in and out. Many scenes concentrate primarily on Driver orJohansson without the other present, while some are two-handers, highlighting that there are really three ways of life at stake here: the solo individuals’, and the joint. Similarly, the two cities (Driver’s New York and Johansson’s Los Angeles) between which the action switches come to represent them: we know Johansson is “winning” the custody battle when Driver has to take an apartment in LA.

Matching this is Randy Newman’s score, every bit the equal of his terrific work for Toy Story 4, consisting largely of self-contained short pieces (for example, a reflection for strings and piano on the night that Driver is served with those papers). It’s versatile stylistically, with just a hint of the Classical but no pastiche, and in atmosphere it matches the complex mixed tones of the human story: affectionately droll at the opening, for example, but unafraid to be frankly bittersweet at other times.

Like those long and distinct scenes, these pieces with beginnings, middles and ends might seem to belong to the world of live performance. But there is also a productive tension between the theatrical and the filmic in Marriage Story, perhaps echoing that between the protagonists’ careers in the two mediums. Indeed, while there is very little visual flash (apart from a tiny number of dissolves and fades), neither is there any staginess: editing and photography work quietly in the background to add interest and rhythm.

in particular, the timing of the editing is absolutely spot-on. Jennifer Lame (a frequent editor for Baumbach, also recently notable for Ari Aster’s Hereditaryand Midsommar) frequently cuts a split second before you expect, or conversely lingers a moment longer than many would, without ever giving the impression of hurry or drag. Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, meanwhile, will often bring someone or something into or out of the frame in an unexpected way. Some Altmanesque overlapping lines of dialogue have a similar function: slightly relieving the movie’s heavy reliance on the content of what is said, and making it a sensory experience too.

Some individual scenes stand out. Marriage Story opens in a quasi-documentary style with him talking in voiceover about her, then her about him. We think it’s narration, thenwe learn these are notes the pair are writing for a mediator helping them to sort out their separation and divorce. (Perhaps we assumed a marriage counsellor, but no: the marriage is already kaput by the time the film begins, though one of Marriage Story ‘s concerns will be to show us how it can be both alive and dead at the same time.)

This is exposition, of course — it’s outright character description, in fact — but it doesn’t feel like it. Much the same could be said of three key sequences which cover the same issues in different ways: the couple at a meeting with their lawyers, then in court with lawyers, and then together alone.

An obvious contrast is drawn here between the raw, twisted antagonism of court and the amity that still survives in the relationship. Driver says at one point “we don’t have to do it with envelopes”, but the lawyers are determined that it should be done with demands and deadlines and judgements: it’s more they than the couple who see the case as one to win or lose.

Baumbach here and elsewhere has things to say about the legal system, none of them positive; for example, when Dern points out to Johansson that mothers are held to higher standards than fathers.

But it is in the last of these three passages, a long scene without music or distractions in an almost bare room, that real anger and strong physical emotion (generally rare in this film) surface and we feel we are getting to the heart of the divorce, as well as of the drama: a furious argument that ends with Driver kneeling, sobbing, clutching Johansson’s legs while she strokes his hair.

Even here, though, there is humour: something that exists through much of Marriage Story, yet skilfully embedded in the flow so that one-liners don’t stand out. That big argument, for example, descends into a lengthy series of apparently out-of-the-blue accusations and insults ( you gaslighted me, you repulsed me, you’re the worst bits of our parents, you’re such a dick, I wish you were dead) which is both hilarious and — perhaps because we can imagine ourselves reaching a point where things like that are said — horrifying.

This, ultimately, is Baumbach’s point. There is plenty in Marriage Story about the pain of separation (in one scene the couple’s son is literally tugged in both directions) but his real concern is to examine the way that vestiges of the old relationship persist, like Driver enquiring about a fresh look for Johansson’s hair, or her cutting his, even as they are fighting each other to establish the parameters of their split.

The argument scene itself is followed by one where they laugh together as Johansson advises Driver on how to decorate his new apartment — via videoconferencing. They’re apart now, yet they’re not. Quarrels, companionship, collaborative habits: these things existed before the divorce, and will exist after.

So perhaps Marriage Story is, as much as anything else, a questioning of the way in which we sometimes see the partnered as so very different from the non-partnered, an artificial binary division promoted by the likes of Love Story and tens of thousands of other films, TV shows, books, plays, operas…

Driver may, toward the end, grab a karaoke mike to sing Being Alive from Sondheim’s Company (“alone/is alone,/not alive…”) but we surely recognise this as rather silly self-pity on his part. The marriage story is finished, but the friendship, the love even, and certainly the world are not.

Amor vincit omnia, just not always in the way that we anticipate. For all that it deals with a wrenchingly miserable episode in its main characters’ lives, Marriage Story is a profoundly optimistic film, and an unassuming masterpiece.

Originally published at https://www.quora.com.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.