Given its difficult topic, Marriage Story will be extremely difficult to watch for many, especially if they grew up in dysfunctional households. But this new Netflix original provides a new perspective on the damage done between a separated couple, and however it touches you personally should provide value later in life in the same way your favorite bedtime stories did. The whole experience is uplifted by transparent, real dialogue and relatable moments, but many of the characters develop too slowly and too weakly; they’re all the same tropes seen in every divorce movie ever, nothing new added. In fact, a better title for this movie would be, “less good Kramer vs. Kramer.”
The lack of originality is most apparent with the son, who just mimics every stereotypical angry victim of divorced parents who wants attention, no other personality comes out of him. As he is cussed at by his father, the passive boy doesn’t react in any way that enhances the weak parent-to-son relationship, despite the time spent together. He serves as an exposition piece between the two broken leads who are specifically written to display acting range, a priority taken over the film having any social relevance. The low originality consequently proves little substance to the cheap editing and cinematography, dashing away bland efforts to feign brilliance. Much like any “family drama movie” from the 1980s, editor Jennifer Lame (Hereditary, Manchester by the Sea) uses too many fade-to-blacks while the cinematographer shoots inside houses plainly, whereas the camera occasionally goes out of focus. The best cinematography in the film stays above the upper half of the screen while the bottom half looks too squeaky-clean to be considered good. As much as director Noah Baumbach generates a good effort in framing the pleasant compositions, the emphasis is not so much on the technical prowess, but more on letting the cast unleash their sincere selves.
That’s why those flaws are all made up for when transitioning the setting from New York to Los Angeles, a beautiful window view of palm trees introduces the now single wife’s new home. Then conflict happens: Should the husband move to Los Angeles? Should he stay in New York where his career is? What’s most important? What’s best for their song? After he’s made a trip there to figure things out, the way he appears wearing his mummy Halloween costume fits his story arc perfectly, especially in what it means for the boy. Basically, he must celebrate two Halloweens, one with each parent. After trick-or-treating with his mother, the kid dumps a ton of candy on the floor. After trick-or-treating with his father, he dumps around six pieces of candy on the floor.
Other details like the candy incident brim narrative genius throughout the feature, including the prologue: first the husband lists the traits he loves about his wife, especially in how her negative quirks increase his love for her, then she does the same for him. Turns out they’re marriage therapy exercises that end up not working. Shortly after this scene solidifies divorce as the only option left for the couple, the rosy-cheeked Scarlett Johansson monologues a good long while as the camera lingers upon her. Her wet eyes compensate the fact that the direction of moving the actors around the walls is a little inconsistent (but only a little). Meanwhile, the talented Adam Driver peddles through his role to help you empathize with his unlikable character; he curls up into a ball when the stress overtakes him, taking more and more out of him until he eventually breaks out into a tearful song. Then after knowing these two as if they were your own spouse, the heartbreaking marriage therapy note comes back in the very end to spark more twinkles in your eyes.
Indeed, the focus of the production stays on the two main actors’ faces until your own cheeks turn snow white. It really is remarkable how well these two act off each other, especially when separated by a subway handrail that could never be penetrated. The intense lines drawn between these two keep pulling them further and further away from each other until they start a big fight—the year’s scariest movie scene. It’s one of those scenes that will bring back every painful memory you’ve ever had, and the secret to its uncomfortable power is the little flaws in the way they talk. Just like that, the themes are fully illustrated, and your perspective on the damage done by divorce is clear.
So this is one of those “you love it, or you don’t” types of entertainment that at best will only leave a temporary effect on your memory, aside from Scarlett and Adam’s big fight. Though a few people will hold onto Marriage Story for a good long while, calling it a masterpiece, but most may just forget it, myself included. This isn’t the type of film you would want to watch with your family during the Christmas season, given how depressing it is, so to leave you on a cheerful note, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!