Marriage Story is being discussed as one of the best movies of the year, and it certainly deserves to be in that discussion.
Although, that may have more to do with 2019 being a terrible year in cinema and less to do with the exceptional quality of Marriage Story.
But Noah Baumbach is one of the best directors in the game today and there is no one better at writing realistic dialogue. No, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t write realistic dialogue. He just makes serial killers talk like racist comic book nerds. Nothing about that is ‘realistic’.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are two of the biggest stars in the world and will be the only stars in the world once Disney is done consuming all media and all humanity is left with is The Avengers and Star Wars.
Marriage Story is the tale of Charlie Barber, a New York play director and his wife, Nicole Barber, a former 90’s teen movie star most famous for showing her tits in a very Anna Farris-esque role, who now stars in her husband’s plays, and their sort of sudden divorce.
Before I proceed in this critique, it’s important that I reinforce that this is a good movie. Some might say a great movie and a very relatable one for anyone who has experienced divorce, especially when a child is involved and how nasty and upsetting that whole legal process can become.
The biggest hurdle that I simply could not leap over while watching this film was Nicole Barber aka Scarlett Johansson.
So, I’ll start by asking this:
Are we sure Scarlett Johansson is a good actress?
Let’s ignore how we may feel about Scarlett personally, as she seems to have nonstop incredibly thoughtless comments on cultural appropriation and Woody Allen grooming little girls.
Let’s focus on the last decade and a half where she’s built her brand on being an action star. It’s safe to say she’s not really getting into her acting bag as she’s fake flirting with a CGI green giant.
I was excited to see her in this movie as it is clearly a role that was going to be sent directly to the Academy for their consideration and we instantly saw her attempt to get that Oscar in that scene where Nicole tells her divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), the real reason why she wants a divorce.
Nicole begins to weep as she describes how she was without a voice in her marriage and how she spent all of her time just trying to please Charlie without ever growing as her own individual person.
It was a soliloquy from a play. And the entire time I couldn’t help but rattle off other actresses who could have said those lines better.
But as the movie progressed, she proved she can hang with Adam Driver. The weird feeling I had watching this movie wasn’t because Scarlett couldn’t act.
In order to understand my beef with the movie, we have to pull out our microscopes and examine the backstory behind this movie as it was clearly autobiographical, to an extent.
This movie is the story of Noah Baumbach’s 2010 separation from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Jennifer Jason Leigh comes from a family of actors just like Nicole Barber and the two divorced shortly after having a child together.
So when you watch this film with that context in mind, you quickly discover that Scarlett isn’t the problem, it’s Nicole Barber.
It doesn’t seem intentional but we were made to care more about Charlie Barber in this divorce. He is the one who struggles to connect with his son. He is the one who has to impress the Evaluator. He is the one who struggles to find a lawyer.
Meanwhile, the son loves Nicole. She doesn’t have to do two Halloweens. We don’t ever see the Evaluator judging her relationship with their son. A coworker just hands her a card to the best divorce lawyer in LA.
The reason I didn’t give a shit when she was crying to Nora wasn’t because Scarlett can’t act but it’s because she gets everything she wants in this.
She wants a divorce, it happens. She wants custody of her son, done. She instantly gets the starring role in a new TV series and by the end, she is the one who’s moved on with a new boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Charlie loses opportunities because he’s forced to spend more time in LA so that a judge grants him a lick of custody. He has to pay for two apartments on two coasts. He has to pay for his wife’s lawyer. My man literally slits his wrist and almost drops dead at one point.
His wife gets accused of maybe having a drinking problem, maybe.
Men are typically shitty at writing roles for women but this one sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially when you consider that Baumbach, and his current partner, Greta Gerwig, began hooking up in 2009. Baumbach was still married.
It’s interesting that Charlie cheats in this movie and it’s always the least important aspect of their fights. It’s the last thing that’s brought up in divorce court, something that would typically be used as Exhibit A of why two people are getting divorced.
When Charlie and Nicole have their massive fight, it’s the last point that Nicole brings up and Charlie, as he’s done all movie, just sort of shrugs it off. The cheating is never really a big deal.
Marriage Story is a good movie.
But it’s super unbalanced story telling that seems like a weak apology to Noah’s ex by painting her as this perfect mother with a close caring family who, in the midst of the most heartbreaking time in her life, is able to easily become the lead of a new TV series.
It’s as if Noah was so afraid to show any of his exes flaws that he turned her into a one dimensional blank canvas who is burdening the genius of Charlie Barber with her insistence on being happy or whatever.
Perhaps I’m just disappointed as a Noah Baumbach fan that he wasn’t capable of making me care about both leads equally. I honestly cared more about Ray Liotta’s character than Scarlett’s. I want a day in the life of the Evaluator. Martha Kelly was amazing.
Turns out men suck at writing roles for women. Hm. Who knew? It’s almost as if women in Hollywood get the short end of the stick. No wonder Scarlett says she should be allowed to play any race and she still has positive shit to say about Woody Allen. Homegirl is just trying to get work in this shitty town.