‘I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying about it. One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction I don’t know what is.”
This is what Nora Ephron wrote on the 25th anniversary of the publication of her classic novel, Heartburn, which was inspired by her divorce from the journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s a quote that Noah Baumbach would be more than entitled to slap on at the beginning of Marriage Story, a film that was inspired by his divorce from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. For some reason, people (fools) keep comparing Baumbach’s movie to Kramer vs Kramer, the 1979 anti-feminist divorce movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. But Kramer vs Kramer just converts its rage and sadness into more rage and more sadness. In Heartburn, Ephron alchemised her anger and grief into something extremely funny, honest and vulnerable. Baumbach does the same with Marriage Story, which tells the story of the collapse of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) marriage. But Baumbach goes one step further, something you almost never see in any movie, let alone one about divorce: he looks at both the man and the woman’s experiences. (In fact, the only movie I can think of that is equally interested in its male and female protagonists is When Harry Met Sally, which was written by … Nora Ephron.)
I understand why some critics think the movie ends up too much on Charlie’s side, but I think they’re wrong, and few are quicker than me to take offence on behalf of a female character. It’s true we end the movie with Charlie, but we also see what an absolutely narcissistic dickhead he is, whereas the movie is never personally critical of Nicole. She comes across as a nice person who is just in desperate need to get on with her life. Charlie, on the other hand, seems like a self-obsessed director who constantly snaps at his child. Put it this way: which of the two characters would you rather date? Even Baumbach knows the answer to that.
The next thing to say about Marriage Story is that it’s really funny. God, it’s so funny. Even the famous big fight scene, in which Charlie and Nicole finally tear one another to shreds, is actually funny. “I hope you get an illness and then get hit by a car and DIE!” Charlie snarls. It’s mean, yes, but also hilarious, in the way adult life can be horrible and hilarious at the same time. With the exceptions of The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg and The Meyerowitz Stories, I’ve found Baumbach’s movies to be a little too mannered, a little too self-conscious. But in Marriage Story, he finds a tone that is both entirely unique and utterly unobtrusive. I’ve never seen another film that is as simultaneously funny and sad as this one. It feels completely apt – and real – that Charlie, later in the movie, should sing Being Alive in a bar, the great song from Company by Stephen Sondheim, because no other songwriter is so good at synthesising the good and the sad in life.
Other depictions of divorce, including Heartburn, often shade into black and white caricatures, but Marriage Story, by and very large, doesn’t. The one exception to this is Nicole’s divorce lawyer, played by Laura Dern, who is so vulture-like it doesn’t leave you with much doubt about Baumbach’s feelings for his ex-wife’s legal team. For this reason, I really don’t understand the awards fuss around Dern; if people were so desperate to give something to one of the lawyers in this movie, they should have gone for Ray Liotta, who is thrillingly funny and far less cartoonish.
Which brings us to the awards. I’m delighted that Johansson and Driver have been so heavily nominated for this movie, and it’s infuriating that Driver – who absolutely gives the performance of the year in this – has been awards-blocked so thoroughly by Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. The moment when Charlie reads Nicole’s letter about him to their son has more power in it than the whole of Joker times a million. But the really absurd story about Marriage Story is that Baumbach himself hasn’t been nominated for a best director Oscar. This movie got a best film nomination, his actors got best actor and best actress, it even got a best supporting actress nomination for Dern. Instead, he was given consolation prize with a best original screenplay nomination, and I suspect he won’t win that (my money for that category is on Parasite.) It reminds me of the 1992 Oscars when the host Billy Crystal referenced in his opening monologue song that Barbra Streisand hadn’t been nominated for best director for The Prince of Tides, even though almost everyone else connected to her movie got a nomination: “Seven nominations on the shelf / Did this film direct itself?” Crystal sang.
Marriage Story didn’t direct itself, and Baumbach deserved that nomination, certainly more than Todd Phillips does for the absurdly derivative Joker. As he did with The Squid and the Whale (another film for which he only got a screenplay nomination), Baumbach gives this movie an entirely original mood while also plugging deeply into the feelings of the characters. Only a gifted director can do that and it’s why he deserved a director nomination and it’s why the movie deserves to win best film. To paraphrase Ephron, if that isn’t art I don’t know what is.