Venice 2019: Marriage Story – Joint Custody (Still) Sucks

Straight out of Venice Film Festival, we bring you our first impressions of Noah Baumbach’s devastatingly funny marriage epic.

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in “Marriage Story”, photo IMDB

In his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach attempts to grapple with his parents’ divorce, and the legacy of their marriage, subsequent separation, as well as admittedly unusual  parenting styles, and clashing, narcissistic personalities. Like all good family films, it explores the ways in which our families have built us up, and let us down, proving that you probably need to be at least slightly fucked up by your parents in order to develop a sense of humor, and a few somewhat unhealthy, but useful coping mechanisms. The former is something that Baumbach has an abundance of, approaching his clearly personal experiences with humor and spirit, managing to get laughs even out of the most uncomfortable situations.

“Marriage Story” is factually more about a specific divorce than the corresponding marriage. It speaks most poignantly about the very institution, questioning the possibility of holding your own ground and keeping your individuality in a relationship, while giving enough of yourself to your partner so that their, presumably reciprocal, sacrifices make sense. This emotional tug-of-war is at the core of Baumbach’s film, where he seems to have graduated to exploring the failure of his own marriage, and its aftermath, making it a sort of a more grown-up, and all the more devastating sequel of the above mentioned film. When a seemingly happy 10-year-marriage of a New York couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson at a definite career best) and Charlie (Adam Driver in his most perfect Baumbach collaboration), disintegrates assisted by geographical issues and professional disagreements, the result is a bitter custody battle that puts the future of their son at stake. 

As Jesse Eisenberg, who plays a sort of a younger Baumbach in The Squid and the Whale says, and his older avatar in Marriage Story played by Driver confirms: “Joint custody sucks”, but is the only solution for a couple who are better at being parents than spouses. What was meant to be an amicable divorce achieved through a private agreement, easily escalates into a high stakes legal battle, as both parents want to live on different coasts, while somehow not depriving their son of the either parent’s presence. The children who have once blamed all their inadequacies on their parents, their bad divorces, and even worse marriages, are now in the same role themselves – self-involved, somewhat selfish and flawed, too enraptured in their own grief and highly subjective opinions on what the child’s best interests are.

The issue can only be resolved by one side bulging, which is expectedly, no one’s best case scenario. As the divorce gets more complicated, it seems unlikely that a true victory is even possible for anyone – the best option for both is getting their way, and leaving the worrying about consequences for later. This is where the audience begins to take sides in the dispute, and at first it seems like Baumbach has more sympathy for the father, as the mother is the one to initiate the divorce and a move to Los Angeles, also taking the legal battle to the next level. This makes practical sense even to those unfamiliar with the real-life roots of the story, and is further enabled by Driver’s performance – he is charming, loving and entirely lovable, even when he is dismissive towards other people’s emotions, and frankly, a bit of a jerk. Just like Nicole, he remains an essentially good person, who, like all good people, does some good things, and some that are arguably less so.

However, as it becomes clear in the last third of the film, reflected in Laura Dern’s flaming monologue about the different parenting standards reserved for men and women, while being primarily Baumbach’s story, the film is more of a confession, or a way to examine a difficult, albeit pivotal event in his life through other people’s eyes in an attempt to claim responsibility and get closure. In reality, the character that the viewer sympathizes with reveals more about them than the character, acting as a mirror for our own behaviors and aspirations, but it also reveals a deeper story about the invisible double standards that we apply in judging these characters. It could be that Baumbach wants to justify the husband and his poor decision-making in a situation where he seems to have less going on for him, but it is more likely that he exposes the ways in which we view sacrifices made by women differently than those made by men, deeming them less challenging or “impressive”, or even as the default, thereby automatically depriving the wife’s character of sympathy. The truth is, while one partner was “worse” in the marriage, and the other one in the divorce, they are essentially decent, but flawed people, who each got to be selfish in different points in their lives.

Nothing to see here, just Laura Dern stealing the show in every supporting role she was ever in, photo IMDB

As Laura Dern epically quips, God is the original father, and “even he is absent – he is in heaven”, and Driver’s character chooses to be a more contemporary father figure, making his undisputed classification as a good parent his most important feature. Just like him, Baumbach is fully present, crafting his best and most Baumbach-esque work to date – an honest, funny, warm and sad film of a relentless energy, that touches on creativity, jealousy and cruelty, all things best brought out by the people we love, managing to even bring Stephen Sondheim into the mix. As Driver emotionally belts in an unexpectedly brilliant singing sequence –  “Somebody know me too well, … pull me up short, and put me through hell”, Marriage Story is essentially about love and art – arguably the things we stay alive for, and about how loving someone means giving them the exclusive right to hurt us. Even when they so viciously hurt each other and themselves, Baumbach treats his characters with warmth and understanding, while retaining a sense of humor about it, and making the audience love and understand the protagonists as the flawed and vulnerable people that they are. There isn’t much more we could have asked from the film.      

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