Every year around Thanksgiving M and I anticipate the release of new films hoping for an Oscar nomination. This year is no exception. In the last two weeks we’ve seen three – Scorsese’s The Irishman with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
I was prepared for gory violence in the first two, but nothing prepared me for the pain and emotional violence of Marriage Story. I knew it would a roller coaster. I had seen Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar and Francis Ha, his 2012 film starring his muse Greta Gerwig. Still, the characters in Marriage Story broke my heart because they and their story were so mainstream and tragic in their normalcy.
M and I are hopefully beyond the tragedy of Nicole and Charlie, the characters played by Johansson and Driver, but we’ve been there with our own divorces and children. We often look at each other and say “marriage is hard” – a heartfelt expression of reality and irony.
There are so many uncomfortable but familiar scenes in the film. I was especially uncomfortable watching the posturing, caricatures of Los Angeles lawyers played scathingly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. Been there, done that… escaping their fate by virtue of having an alternative profession before I was in too deep.
The film chronicles a tug of war between two bright, talented artists and two distinct lifestyles symbolized in the film by New York and Los Angeles. Everyone engaged in their tug of war is a loser – especially their young son, Henry, who is loved to distraction by both but a victim and pawn in their private battle.
Both Nicole and Charlie try to be reasonable when the rift between them begins to look inevitable, but different needs take them from wanting to work things out amiably to alienation and hurt feelings. Enter the lawyers–whose scorched earth tactics amplify the feelings of hurt and division but have nothing to do with fairness or the well-being of their clients. Soon, everyone is in tears except the lawyers.
There are many memorable scenes, but one near the end is especially poignant. Visiting a jazz club with friends, Charlie takes the open mike and sings a version of “Being Alive” the Stephen Sondheim song from Company. It’s done in close up, with the ending refrain “But alone/is alone/not alive.” I could hear people in the audience crying, and watching Charlie’s face felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper on an open wound.
It’s not much of a stretch to see Marriage Story as a metaphor for America today. Both Republicans and Democrats love the country and its promise, and both mean well. They want things to work out but disagree on how. They hope we’ll soon be able to patch things up and get back to business. But other forces, the lawyers (Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House) acting in their own self-interest are pulling them apart. Do we dare to be optimistic?
Donald Trump is a short sale. He’ll be gone before you know it, and when he’s gone the two sides will have to settle, divide the property, and get on with patching up the American marriage. Henry is collateral damage in the film, and our grandchildren are collateral damage in the American metaphor.
Let’s not fail him