Unearthing a Couple’s Downfall at the NYFF’s Premiere of Marriage Story

BY DEAN MOSES

Each of us live our own personal story. Every man, woman, and child we come across on the bus, in the subway, heck even while shopping in the supermarket are all walking, talking stories. Some stories are tragedies while others are happy tales, and then there are those which are far more complicated. Our narrative changes from day to day, and this is what Marriage Story explores, how two people can go from an inseparable item to magnates expelling a negative charge.

Director Noah Baumbach has been the golden boy of the film festival circuit for the last number of years now, providing work that is heralded by critics thanks to dy-namic writing and relatable themes such as family relationships. Again, Baumbach goes to that old familiar well from which he has drawn creative water many times prior: family. Through the lens of Marriage Story, we watch matrimony dis-integrate between actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and director Charlie (Adam Driver.) The film opens with a heartfelt monologue from each of the aforementioned characters describing every little reason why they love one another. This is a beautiful segment until we realize why they are touting such romanticisms. After a cut we find the pair within a counselor’s office where their relationship is under-going serious damage control. Ultimately, their differences prove to be irreconcilable and henceforth the film becomes a cordial war on the battlefield of divorce, which brings me to my biggest issue.

Marriage Story seems to pride itself on realism, on bringing the viewers down to reality in comedic and uncomfortable ways. However, the problem begins with the overall narrative itself. Both Charlie and Nicole love each other, they both miss each other when separated, yet there is an emphasis on a lack of communication here, so much so the conversation ends up taking place through lawyers. While husband and wife remain mostly amicable, the lawyers get down and dirty. This could be seen as a diagnosis of the cold, unethical justice system, even so the final product leaves us with one word: Why? Why can’t the couple take a moment out from the madness of the legal system and refine the divorce on their own terms? This is where the realism breaks down for me. It seems unlikely that two people on such friendly terms would have such rigorous legal proceedings, and if they did, it seems even more doubtful that they would let it progress to the levels which it does. With that being said, the film does have some standout high-lights, one being actor Adam Driver, who shines even amidst the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern, and Matthew Shear. Driver gives a performance overflowing with teary eyed emotion. Through body language and voice inflexion we feel his suffering, his loss of family, and we are somber for him. He brings believability back to the piece.

Marriage Story is—unsurprisingly by the film’s title—Noah Baumbach’s take on marriage. It feels as though he is telling the audience that there are two sides to every story. That each story is nor wrong nor right, that, for whatever reason, sometimes people are just people and they can’t get along. But, in the process, the narrative can feel a little unnatural, forcing the wrong pieces to fit together. After the screening at the New York Film Festival (NYFF), all the major players took to the stage to discuss the filming process with NYFF Curator Aily Nash to moderate the conversation, including Director Noah Baumbach, actors Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, and producer David Heyman.

NYFF Curator Aily Nash: Do you have any specific reference you would like share with us in terms of what you were thinking [when filming]?

Director Noah Baumbach: What I discovered in the material that the [film] had all of these hidden genres baked into it. The scene when they are attempting to serve Charlie the [divorce papers] was both absurd and horrifying at the same time. I thought it was a thriller and a screwball comedy at the same time….It’s also like a Hitchcock movie, there is a bomb under the table and we all know it’s there and we are just waiting for it to go off. I didn’t have to lighten up the scene or darken the scene; I felt like it was all there in the material…I actually looked at persona a lot because of the faces and the framing. I knew I wanted to do a lot of close-ups in the movie. But also show people in relation to each other in rooms.

NYFF Curator Aily Nash: When you saw the script, what attracted you to this film?

Scarlett Johansson: I think everyone went into doing this project, all the actors and everyone involved, no one had any ego about it. I think you have to be in a safe comfortable place where you don’t feel judged by your fellow actors or your director. You can just be embarrassing and ugly and vulnerable, and be able to go to all those places where you discover the things you see on the screen. I just got very lucky to be cast with incredible actors.

Adam Driver: For this movie I felt that every day [was preparing] for a major event [in anticipation of the upcoming scene to shoot]. It’s a testament to good writing. Even scenes that seemed pretty innocuous, like when reading the script [the words] are beautiful, but when you really have to say it and mean it then it takes a life that happens in front of you. All the scenes were all emotionally challenging in that way.

Photos by Dean Moses