MARRIAGE STORY. Noah Baumbach’s Triumph

The script to “Marriage Story” was primarily inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce.

Jan Brzozowski

6 February 2024

In the beginning of 2005, Noah Baumbach shared with the world “The Squid and the Whale” – a story focusing on the breakdown of a marriage, told from the perspective of two growing children. The film was a tremendous artistic success (winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival), and the screenplay, based on the director’s memories of his parents’ divorce (the character played by Jeff Daniels, embodying the head of the fractured family, even wore clothes belonging to Baumbach’s father), was nominated for an Oscar. After almost 15 years, the creator of “Frances Ha” returned to the theme that once brought him recognition, crafting “Marriage Story.” However, this time, the script was primarily inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce, ending his eight-year marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

“Marriage Story” opens with confessions highlighting the virtues of each spouse, read off-screen by the two main characters. From Charlie’s (Adam Driver) words, we learn that Nicole is a wonderful mother who always finds time for long and exhaustive playtime with their son. She is an excellent actress and an exceptionally likable person, constantly sacrificing for others. From Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) words, we learn that Charlie is an incredibly talented and creative theater director. He gets along very well with their son, regularly taking him to the movies and playing board games with him (most frequently Monopoly, which recurs several times throughout the film). Idyllic, isn’t it? Not for long. As the confessions end, Baumbach pours a bucket of cold water on the audience. Suddenly, we realize that our happy and carefree characters are in a mediator’s office, and writing and reading notes highlighting each other’s virtues is the first step toward divorce.

marriage story

Charlie and Nicole decide they want to part with dignity – sorting out the details between themselves, without lawyers and courtroom battles. After all, they are civilized people who can find compromises and live in friendship. Baumbach shows in “Marriage Story” that such divorces are practically impossible, especially when child custody is involved. Soon, Charlie and Nicole begin to see each other as bitter enemies, hiring slick and cunning lawyers (played brilliantly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) who don’t hesitate to dig into their private lives and expose embarrassing secrets.

The film’s biggest strength is its impartiality. It might seem that since the director himself went through similar experiences and partly based the script on them, he would naturally favor Charlie. Nothing could be further from the truth. The author of “The Meyerowitz Stories” divides screen time and arguments very rationally – Charlie cheated on his wife and was too focused on personal development (painfully reminiscent of Ted Kramer from Robert Benton’s famous film), while Nicole had been refusing marital intimacy for over a year and, right after separation, took the child from New York to Los Angeles, practically reducing the father-son contact to zero. So, we get to know both sides of the story, and it’s up to us to decide whom we’ll support in this thankless battle. One thing is certain – it’s hard to talk about any winner here (except perhaps for the lawyers, who, with unimaginably gigantic fees, plunge Charlie and Nicole into serious financial trouble). Divorce is always a loss for both parties; the ultimate defeat of marriage and often humanity.

marriage story

However, when it comes to acting, there are two undisputed winners – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Each of them gets a huge opportunity for individual performances. Johansson shines the brightest during the first meeting scene with the lawyer Nora, where, in a long and emotional monologue, she tells the story of her relationship with Charlie from her own female perspective. Driver, on the other hand, is particularly amazing during the expert visitation, where his care for the son is observed and evaluated, and in one of the final scenes in a bar, where the character vents emotions by performing the song “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical. Additionally, Johansson and Driver have another fantastic scene together, during which their characters unleash uncontrollable anger. They begin to blame each other for all their miseries and failures, saying things we would never suspect. The ferocious argument, a climax of the entire film, is followed with great enthusiasm (written at the level of the most engaging verbal clashes from Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”), but also with sadness – the director made us love our characters, and the last thing we want is to witness their downfall.

“Marriage Story” is a great triumph for Baumbach, another proof that he is currently one of the most interesting, talented creators from across the ocean. A director whose every upcoming film is eagerly awaited, a true author of cinema.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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