Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

TIFF Review: Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Chris and I spent the last four days at the Toronto International Film Festival and caught a whirlwind 14 movies, recording 15-30 minute reviews for each which will be rolled out over time. Every day, I’ll try to post a summary in this abbreviated format, along with the episode link.

TIFF Update #7: Marriage Story

Rating: 4.5/5

Synopsis: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are a married couple living the New York dream — an acclaimed actress and a playwright sharing a young son, a vaunted theatre company, and a spacious Brooklyn apartment. The dream, except for one detail: they’re getting a divorce. The film follows that process, and particularly the custody battle, over the course of a year.

My take: There were flashier titles in this year’s lineup (Joker, Knives Out, arguably Uncut Gems), but Marriage Story was my most anticipated by leaps and bounds. Part of that is simply a matter of personnel: while director Noah Baumbach has always had a solid record, for my money his last 8 years have been just about perfect — the rhapsodic love of Frances Ha, easy charm of While We’re Young, screwball affection of Mistress America, and weary pathos of The Meyerowitz Stories all won me over in their own ways. Part of it was also the subject matter; anybody can write a graceful story about the start of a relationship, but a graceful story about the end of one? That’s premium, hard-fought, happy-sad territory, and few films have really hit the mark.

I’m thrilled to report that Baumbach’s winning streak continues. In fact, I’ll go one step further: Marriage Story is the best, most fully-realized work of his career. It’s also the strongest performance I’ve ever seen out of Adam Driver (step aside, Paterson), and the most Johansson has moved me since Lost In Translation. As long as we’re speaking in superlatives: it contains his most human dialogue, most earned comic moments, most canny observations, most perfect blurring of reality and fiction. That last bit is crucial: this isn’t the first time Baumbach has mined his personal life for material (The Squid And The Whale and Mistress America being the most obvious examples), but it’s the time where a personal angle counts for the most. Ostensibly informed by his former marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh, it feels clear that Baumbach is at least borrowing from his present as well: Charlie the playwright who becomes enraptured by his muse, Nicole the captivating firebrand whose directorial aspirations are at odds with the label of “muse” he applies.

It’s important, because nothing about Nicole and Charlie’s relationship feels past tense: its bitter denouement only amplifies the sweetness at its root. As with Scenes from a Marriage (a reference so obvious the title even appears on a fake article about the couple), Baumbach’s film opens with each partner narrating what they love about the other. It’s a long, generous list, and it’s the backbone of every emotional low point that follows. Unlike Bergman, though, this moment — this whole film, for that matter — comes after they’ve already agreed to separate. There is no surprise, no aggrieved party, and very little by way of flashback; all the tenderness that we witness, we witness in divorce. They may become angry, may even grow to hate each other, but we’re never led to believe that one has “fallen out of love” with the other. It’s more complicated than that; more honest, more subtle, more quietly devastating. It’s the story of two people who both love and can’t stand each other, who, in the process of seeking the most graceful separation possible, are about to thoroughly ruin each other’s lives.

A lawyer backs a tearful Meryl Streep into a corner, demanding she acknowledge that she “failed” her marriage; Dustin Hoffman shakes his head and mouths an encouraging “no.” That courtroom scene in Kramer vs Kramer is what I kept returning to as I watched Charlie and Nicole’s divorce grow uglier by the minute. The cognitive dissonance at the root of it all: Kramer trying to protect his ex-wife from the very man he’s paying to eviscerate her; Nicole trying to serve Charlie divorce papers while simultaneously cushioning the blow. That fundamental relational instinct to protect, to console, to put the other first, jutting up against a legal system which demands two aggressively self-centered sides. It doesn’t make sense, the way Charlie flees from surface-level conflict while dumping his life savings into one massive fight; the hand of comfort offered by Nicole after a shouting match so brutal it leaves a hole in the drywall. “Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things?” as the Magnetic Fields put it. The end is as illogical as the beginning.

And yet there’s so much to mine from that deep-seated contradiction. If I told you this contains multiple tearful monologues worthy of an Oscar reel, or that there’s an argument at the center which is the most damning I’ve seen in years — it does, and there is — you might not be surprised. But what if I told you that it’s also light, brisk, and often laugh-out-loud funny? That the lawyers involved (Laura Dern, Alan Alda) are more giddy exaggerations than symbols of menace? That there’s a sight gag involving a knife which had the audience in stitches? That, despite being the longest film of Baumbach’s career, it’s also the one that went by the quickest? That of all the films I saw at the festival, this brutal two-hander about the dissolution of a marriage is the one I’m most eager to watch again? Marriage Story is a movie that pulls off a magic trick: it devastates without being dreary, makes us laugh at pain without blunting its sting. It implicates us in some fundamental absurdity. And in its own clever way, it mines it for hope: if we can survive this shit, if we can choose to do it again, we can survive anything.

Pairs with: Kramer vs Kramer, Scenes from a Marriage

Episode link: TIFF 2019: Marriage Story