Marriage Story (R)

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When I saw Marriage Story lately, I intended it to be the first in a double feature. After the film ended, however, I was so overwhelmed that I canceled my ticket to the second film and drove straight home, though I also considered turning around and seeing Marriage Story again that same night. A conventional review did not seem like the best medium through which to try and express my response to the film, so I tried something else.

What I love about Marriage Story:

It never shies away from the ugliness and heartbreak implicit in its subject matter, but somehow, its most striking trait is its tenderness. It often feels like the cinematic equivalent of a raw wound, to a degree that almost verges (but only verges) on the manipulative. I cry easily in movies, especially when I’m watching other people cry onscreen, and a lot of people do a lot of crying in this movie. However, it’s more than just a well-performed emotional bludgeoning. There’s a wound here, but there’s also scar tissue. In some ways, it is a film about the most awful of all human experiences, the realization that one is no longer loved – for surely, if humans are made for love, as Christ teaches, the loss of love is the most terrible thing imaginable. Losing the love of another human being is a small reflection of hell, in much the same way that receiving the love of another human being is a small reflection of heaven. But it is ultimately about something deeper, higher, and truer than the absence of love; it is about the arduous transfiguration that takes place when love persists but takes on a different form. It is a deeply painful film, but not a hopeless one; there is resignation, acceptance, and even healing here. It is more purgatory than hell. From its first moments to its last, it is shot through with a kind of love – not the kind we would have wanted, perhaps, but a kind of love nonetheless.

I love Noah Baumbach’s razor-sharp, rapid-fire, hyper-literate domestic comedy-dramas, The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), but Marriage Story is more poignant than those films because it has none of their caustic anger and bitterness. It assesses its characters with a rare generosity, resisting the impulse to categorize them as heroes or villains even when they give into the temptation to categorize each other that way. It relishes human beings – their quirks, their failings, their fumbling attempts to make sense of themselves (and one another). It draws the significance out of the smallest things and it comes alive through the vivid realization of mundane details. It offers Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson the opportunity to fashion their characters, Charlie and Nicole, into a couple of real people with a real relationship. They’re lovable, selfish, frustrating, decent; they’re perplexing and baffling, the way human beings are. They have hopes and fears and dreams. They shout and cry and hug and kiss and make compromises, and they sing, too.

The film has an emotional palette that grows ever richer as it unspools; it surprises you, often, in the most gratifyingly human of ways. It’s mature and patient, too – so patient that it sometimes feels like it’s unfolding in slow motion. It’s nearly a full hour longer than The Squid and the Whale. That film was removed from real life by a few degrees; it saw divorce through the eyes of a child or adolescent to whom the parents were heightened, exaggerated versions of themselves. Marriage Story is an older and wearier film, less chaotic and stylistically aggressive, though no less deeply felt. It is so deeply felt, in fact, that it sometimes feels like being in a dream – not a nightmare, necessarily, but one of those uncomfortable dreams that unearth the emotional truths we’d rather not acknowledge in waking life. It’s overwhelming the way being alive is overwhelming.

Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Torrey Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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