…a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, our social life, in our vices. […] It is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life — in conversation… or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print — is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.
— Marcel Proust, Against Sainte-Beuve
What seems to happen in Marriage Story is that Noah Baumbach has continued to take himself in his art too seriously, by which I mean a callow didacticism inherent in his superficial self — spawned in The Meyerowitz Stories — is given more license, and though there are some fine moments, the whole feels misquilted. Slow fades to black break up the rhythm, granting the whole no timing — the perfectly calibrated comedic cues of Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America are mostly gone, save for the beginning montage and the scene where Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) sister (Merritt Wever, who the film needed more of) serves Charlie (Adam Driver) divorce papers. Blending the serious and the comedic is an incredibly difficult feat. Woody Allen (Baumbach’s obvious precursor) successfully married the two modes in Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, and Irrational Man, but during Baumbach’s journey along these new paving stones there are stumbles, mostly stemming from the script.
Marriage Story, like Phantom Thread, carries an underdeveloped narrative vertebrae of mass appeal that doles out more and more concessions for easy audience identification, rather than reveling in their disreputable characters. What makes Baumbach’s and Paul Thomas Anderson’s best films soar is their rootedness with their misfit protagonist or protagonists. Baumbach cherishes the asshole in his three triumphs, but in Marriage Story, Charlie doesn’t have enough asshole in him. It’s Driver’s film (he gets plenty more screentime), but there is something currying favor encoded in his lines, with a backstory that is more name brand soup than thick homemade stew. He is a man who struggles to have time with his son. There are many men like this, but by itself, such a fact is not a requirement to feel for him. We don’t see too much of his life as a theatre director, though it is the main reason for the marriage’s destruction. More than a few things just happen without much preparation: suddenly, he’s singing and suddenly, she’s doing a comedic dance skit with her mother and sister, whose previous fireworks together makes this somewhat uncalled for. There’s a puerile gimmick to Charlie cutting himself in front of a court evaluator in the custody battle, as well as the film’s last gesture of the shoe tying that might speak to the minds of Oscar voters or people who don’t want to think too hard about art or life, but smacks as tawdry — almost “first thought, best thought.” In conjunction, the Randy Newman score sounds too much like Terms of Endearment and brings with it that cloying treacly tone which uses an aural onion to make sure the audience’s eyes are crying, mirroring the script’s own insistence.
Why show only a few minutes up front of the couple’s togetherness? With so little time dramatizing their togetherness, the relationship seems oxymoronically not so important anyway. We don’t know what is at stake — a bread and butter phrase of token critics everywhere — but this leads to the “what the artist has to say” bromide, by which I don’t mean wisdom or insight, only form. A filmmaker says what she feels through the medium, i.e. what she feels is translated onto the frame, the camera’s positioning, the editing, and in the souls of the actors who speak her lines, the mainstay of Baumbach’s cinema. But this translation is garbled. The film is more a self-help pamphlet on divorce — yes, there is rage, and three stripes of the scum of the earth divorce lawyer, but this is the familiar surface most people are well acquainted with. I hope we ask art not to give a simple recounting, but a much deeper blast into our brain that reflects life’s beauty, ugliness, and uncanniness, something Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon, from 1982, does contain — a work that could be imbibed as antidote to this hampered effort. It also begins at the breaking point, but the essence of the marriage comes out over the rest of the running time. That is to say, the characters define how they came to be distraught without flashback (in laconic Carver/Lish dialogue and with children taken much more seriously than merely pawns), whereas in Marriage Story, they simply cope.
With the help of Greta Gerwig, no one has captured the beyond lost generation of 20- and 30-year-old Americans like Baumbach (her generation, not his) did in the three films starring her — all more comedy-laden. Laughter can put one in touch with the tragedy of so many people taking their personal, exiguous lives too seriously, while ignoring the greater world around them. Too many of these same people feel that anything as earnest as unsentimental melodrama is dismissible and cancel-worthy, but comedies let one’s piper get paid in the days or even years after viewing, when what used to taste so sweet (rampant ego-mania) turns spiteful. This is exemplified in W.S. Merwin’s translation of Hadrian’s poem “Little Soul”:
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things
In those three films, Ben Stiller and Gerwig are completely self-absorbed until they are justly cut down to size. Someone tells them to grow the fuck up. That courtesy is not extended to the principles of Marriage Story. Instead there is the touchy-feely, Hallmark-Oscar sentiment, “Don’t worry folks, it will be alright.”
The influence of Eric Rohmer (Baumbach named his first child the Frenchman’s pseudonymous last name) should not be underestimated. Baumbach has subsumed some of the playful montage aspects in Rohmer’s whimsical yet dramatic and diaryesque films Claire’s Knee, Pauline at the Beach, The Green Ray, and A Tale of Winter (see especially the Sacramento section in Frances Ha). But Rohmer likely didn’t say to himself, “I’m going to make a film about a father dying,” or, “This is my divorce film” — both acid 21st-century catchphrases that offer a bleak commentary about where art is.These claims keenly feel like Baumbach’s aim in the last two works, rather than the more fanciful approach in three triumphs, where the shooting and editing match the mood of the enterprise, which isn’t insistent on “saying” anything, as Kubrick averred,
I don’t think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don’t think that any genuine artist has ever been orientated by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.
This serious-sickness has become widespread — David O. Russell made one of the greatest comedies in American cinematic history, Flirting with Disaster, before embarking on tendentious projects — beginning with The Fighter, where he professes to be so invested in the characters’ lives — but which do not warrant a second look. The gloss in those and The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story betrays any deeper artistic merits or uncompromised vision, so much so, that, after seeing these disappointing works, and being someone who looks to art to love it as I do other humans, only the direness of Louise Gluck’s poetry describes my exhaustion:
Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?