I arrived at the theater alone, bought my ticket, and took my seat. Nitehawk Cinema, the Prospect Park location, is the kind of theater that serves food and drinks and the chairs are set up in pairs, each pair sharing a mini table. I usually see movies alone, so this wasn’t the first time the server assumed my neighboring patron and I were together. Separate checks please. It’s a mildly uncomfortable experience, charming in that it feels like something that happens in a romantic comedy when the hero is single and sad about it. I’m not sad about it, though. Being alone is easy in some ways. Being in a couple is easy in similar ways. Transitioning from the latter to the former, not so much, as made evident by writer/director Noah Baumbach’s new film Marriage Story.
Before I was alone, I was in a really great relationship, that’s actually still a pretty great relationship. It’s just no longer romantic, it no longer involves cohabitation, we no longer share a life. We’re really great friends. It wasn’t a marriage, but it was a very close, long term relationship of about four years. We endured long distance, then we lived together with roommates, then we moved to a place of our own, adopted kittens together, and raised them into cats. It wasn’t perfect, nothing and no one is, but we shared a life, became family, and eventually realized we were growing in different directions, and wanted different things. Things so different that compromise didn’t feel fair to either of us, remaining together was no longer the best choice. The best choice was to untangle our lives and become independent individuals. I’m proud of that break up. Our strengths in coupledom were also our strengths in separation. Genuine respect, and generosity, and gratitude and yes, love. It was a radical change to our status quo, and I don’t want to say it was easy, but we pulled it off. Full transparency, it was pragmatically much easier for me as I stayed in our apartment and she moved out. It helps that we didn’t have a child, and we didn’t have all that much to divvy up.
“We don’t have that much,” says Charlie Barber, (Adam Driver) anticipating his imminent divorce from Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), “She can have most of it.” He expects a straightforward process. This sentiment captures Charlie’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. Divvying up all the shared worldly possessions doesn’t seem like a big deal, because he still understands them as shared. The couch isn’t important, it’s our couch, she can have it. This is his generosity, his warmth, his reasonableness, but this is also his stubborn misunderstanding of what is happening, and why it’s happening. He expects it to be easy because he still thinks his own personal status quo is what everyone is operating under, but Nicole has no interest in that. Of course she doesn’t, that’s why they’re getting divorced. Nicole has felt trapped, and for once she wants to feel like her life is her own, not dictated by Charlie’s. Charlie and Nicole have a child together, Henry (Azhy Robertson), which means even in their new, independent lives they will always have one necessary tether. They’ve decided to “do this without lawyers,” but Nicole lawyers up forcing Charlie to follow suit. She wants to live with Henry in LA, where her family and burgeoning acting career is. Charlie fully expects to stay in New York, where they’ve lived for the past ten years, and where his prestigious theater career is. The lawyers ramp this emotionally difficult situation into a zero sum game, an all out war.
Marriage Story is about the ugliness that manifests when a shared life transitions into two separate lives. It’s about how the systems through which you divvy up the stuff exacerbates the ugly. It’s a devastating film, not because it’s about cruel people, but because it’s about wonderful people. Before we understand why they’re separating, at the beginning of the film, Charlie and Nicole describe everything they love about one another. It’s so specific, and sincere, and full of love. Although Marriage Story is brutally painful, it is also an achingly hopeful film about a pretty great relationship. A great relationship in tormented transition, but one that comes out the other side alive. Not as it was before, evolved, for the better. The marriage fails because of a lack of mutual understanding, an unwillingness to sacrifice, and fundamentally different goals. The relationship succeeds because they mend the misunderstanding, make the necessary sacrifices, and they follow their own goals independently.
I give Marriage Story 10 Frankenstein costumes out of 10 store-bought ninja costumes.
-Scarlett Johansson for Best Actress, Adam Driver for Best Actor, Laura Dern for Best Supporting Actress, Alan Alda for Best Supporting Actor. Seriously, every performance is nakedly human and pitch perfect.
-I feel like this kind of movie gets overlooked when it comes to craft, because it’s a modern day drama set in the real world. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, Jade Healy’s production design, Jennifer Lame’s editing, and Rich Bologna’s sound design are all transcendent.
-Shout out to the servers at Nitehawk Cinema who had to serve me food and refill my water as I ugly cried through this whole damn movie.