Noah Baumbach’s painfully intimate chamber film about the collapse of a marriage has, among other things, a venomous courtroom battle, an unbroken six-minute, tear-filled argument, a self-inflicted knife wound, and yet, this profoundly moving film offers – surprise – one of the most romantic movie-going experiences you’re likely have this year.
The late Fall is a very strange time for American cinema: on one hand, distributors are strategically timing a huge slew of palatably commercial releases like Last Christmas, Charlie’s Angels, and of course, the hundreds of boy-meets-girl TV romcoms that are as neatly baked as the Christmas cookies their bakery-owner protagonists peddle. On the other hand, late Fall is reserved for “serious” Oscar-hopefuls: well-crafted but portentous dramas about the existential tragedy of being alive.
Annually, this dichotomous season of American film seems to offer only two options for filmgoers: saccharine or sour.
Marriage Story miraculously lands square in the middle, providing two surefire Oscar performances buoyed by a painfully honest script, and yet, directed with an uncompromisingly warm and empathetic touch. It’s certainly not a feel-good relationship movie like those Hallmark flicks, but equally, it’s not a feel-bad relationship movie like Blue Valentine, it’s a feel-everything relationship movie, and it’s one of the best of the year.
I watched this movie with my wife, which, depending on the state of your marriage, isn’t something I’d recommend to everyone. But for us, it was a love-affirming look at how the intimacy of marriage can feel like an open wound, completely exposed and vulnerable to either gentle tending or bitter salting – as they say – for better or for worse.
What Marriage Story gets so right, so much more right than other relationship movies from which it borrows, is that the pain, the hurt, and the resentment that accompany difficult seasons of marriage never come from despising your partner, but from loving them so deeply it magnifies the hurts that inevitably accompany a shared life.
For every scathing comment, petty quip, and coldly calculated takedown Marriage Story offers, Baumbach gives us a gentle hug, an anguished stare, a supportive gesture to remind us that divorce hurts not because we hate the person from whom we’re detaching, but because we love them, sometimes too much
In one of the most moving pieces of writing seen on screen this year, Baumbach brilliantly starts the film with a laundry list of reasons Nicole and Charlie love each other, which only makes the emotional journey of their divorce more credible, and ultimately more painful. In back-to-back scenes, we first see Nicole and Charlie lovingly say goodbye through a closing security gate, followed by their divorce lawyers viciously exaggerating all of the petty ugliness of their relationship. Here, Baumbach shows us it’s so much divorce that brings out our worst, but the narrative of divorce, the industry of divorce – so often fueled by the ugliest parts of American capitalism – that sharpens the wedge of separation.
Despite the obvious affection Nicole and Charlie feel for each other, they decide that their relationship is unsustainable, that their personal needs and career aspirations ultimately outweigh the value of their coupledom. And yet, because Baumbach so convincingly, and so fairly, draws an affectionate relationship throughout their separation, there IS a viable version of this movie where they decide to stick it out, to prioritize their partnership above their own desires. The potential of that ending, the version of this story that bubbles so closely beneath the surface of the one we get, is what makes Marriage Story one of the most genuinely romantic films of the year. Unspoken affection colors every frame of this movie to remind us why so many couples choose to stick it out, even at their worst, despite the fact that Nicole and Charlie don’t.