The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today and, as happens every year, some of the nominations were met with acclaim while others left observers scratching their heads. Right now, on twitter, there’s a fierce debate going on between those who think Joker deserved all of its nominations and those who believe that the Academy has once again deliberately snubbed women and people of color.
As for me, I’m just shaking my head at all the nominations for Marriage Story. I get the feeling that, out of all of the recently unveiled best picture nominees, Marriage Story is the one that we will have forgotten about within the next year. It’s an acclaimed film and I’m happy that Scarlett Johansson finally got a nominations (two nominations, as a matter of fact, as she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit) but, in the end, Marriage Story feels rather hollow.
Marriage Story is about the end of a marriage. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a New York-based theatrical director. Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is his wife. Nicole is an actress who, before she married Charlie, was best known for appearing topless in a teen comedy. Charlie is often credited with having resurrected her career. On the surface, they’re the perfect New York couple. However, when we first meet them, their marriage is coming to an end. Charlie, we learn, cheated on Nicole with a production assistant. Nicole wants to go to Los Angeles so that she can star in a television series and have a career that’s not dependent upon her husband. Caught in the middle of all this is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to an amicable split, one with no lawyers and no accusations. That doesn’t last. Nicole hires the cheerfully ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Charlie, after moving out to Los Angeles, finds himself torn between hiring either the the kindly (but ineffectual) Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, in a role he was born to play) or the somewhat sinister (but definitely effective) Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, also in a role that he was born to play). While both Charlie and Nicole try (and often) fail to maintain a civil relationship for Henry’s sake, their attorneys go to war.
There’s a lot of good things to be said about Marriage Story. Though I think that his truly award-worthy work for 2019 was not in this film but instead in The Report, Adam Driver does a good job with role of Charlie. Scarlett Johansson, who has so often been unfairly overlooked at awards time, again proves herself to be one of the best actresses around. Dern, Alda, and Liotta are well-cast as three very different (but very recognizable) attorneys. Noah Baumbach’s script has several good lines. The scene where Nicole’s sister is awkwardly recruited to serve Charlie with the divorce papers is both funny and cringey. The much-acclaimed scene where Charlie and Nicole go from having a polite (if awkward) conversation to yelling at each other is definitely effective even if it’s power has been diluted by it’s subsequent reinvention as a twitter meme.
That said, Marriage Story ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied. It’s pretty much an open secret that the film is based on Noah Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and, watching the film, you can’t help but feel that you’re only getting one side of a very complex story. My first warning sign came when Nicole left for Los Angeles and the film cut to her on the set for her new television series. Marriage Story goes so overboard in portraying Nicole’s show as being vapid and silly that you can’t help but feel that we’re meant to look down on Nicole for abandoning Charlie’s avant-garde theater productions to star in it. We’re meant to say, “She gave up Broadway so she could star in some second-rate Marvel show!?” From the claim that no one took Nicole seriously until Charlie married her to it’s portrayal of her being easily manipulated by her attorney, there’s a pettiness to the film’s portrayal of Nicole.
As for Charlie, he’s presented as being flawed but, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to notice that almost all of his flaws can also serve as a humble brag. He’s a little dorky, He’s too intense. He works too hard. Sometimes, he has a hard time not being the director. Almost all of Charlie’s flaws are the type of stuff that people mention in job interviews whenever they’re asked to name their biggest weakness. “Well, I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes….” It’s hard not to feel that, despite a few scenes where Nicole gets to open up, the film is really only interested in Charlie’s perspective. By the end of the film, Marriage Story reduces Nicole to merely being an obstacle standing in the way of Charlie and his son and it’s hard not to feel that both the character and the actress who plays her deserves better than that. The film goes from being Marriage Story to simply being Charlie’s Story.
While you’re watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in Driver and Johansson’s performances. It’s only afterwards, when you really think about it, that you come to realize that Marriage Story doesn’t really add up to much. It’s a good acting exercise and I’m sure that it will be popular among community theater actors who have been asked to prepare a monologue for their next audition. But the whole is ultimately far less than the sum of its parts.