Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught Me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…
(6 nominations, including best picture, actress – Scarlett Johansson, actor – Adam Driver, supporting actress – Laura Dern, original screenplay, and original music score)
In the summer of 2018, just a few weeks before I was to be married, my fiance and I were sitting on a relatively peaceful restaurant patio enjoying a relaxing meal. Things soon got less relaxing, but much more entertaining. We both slowly quieted down and ate in total silence, shamelessly eavesdropping as the couple sitting at the next table over basically divorced on the spot. We never caught her name, but we knew his name was Josh, because she loudly punctuated every single one of her statements with it.
“You’re going to ABANDON your family, JOSH?!”
“And what am I supposed to do now, JOSH?!”
“I drove to three different craft stores to make those centerpieces, JOSH!”
“I’m trying to establish a sense of FAMILY and TRADITION, JOSH!!!!!”
“What about your kids, JOSH?!”
“Oh, FUCK OFF, Josh.”
“I drink too much?! EVERYONE drinks too much, JOSH!”
We never really got to hear Josh’s side of the story, since he was very quiet and facing away from us, and his soon-to-be-ex-wife was projecting directly at us. From what we could gather, Josh wanted out, he possibly told her in this quiet public setting in hopes that she wouldn’t make a scene, and he wound up being dead wrong. There was some sort of extreme tension about the holidays, presumably when she had worked very hard and he had failed to show sufficient appreciation. Something about tension between their two families maybe? At some point, perhaps when she was in the bathroom, Josh wandered by and pet our dog, and we had to sit there and practice our best poker faces to snot let on that we had spent the entire evening listening to his world crumble. Don’t say “Rough night, huh Josh?” Don’t say “Rough night, huh Josh?” Don’t say “Rough night, huh Josh?”…
When Josh and his spouse wandered away, we sat stunned and tried to unpack what we had just witnessed. My main question was, “How do you think those two people started off?” Because, presumably, they had been madly in love at some point, right? They met and connected and both decided that this was the person with whom they wanted to spend the entire rest of their lives, and nothing could ever come between them. And here they were breaking the fuck apart about holiday centerpieces. Meanwhile my finance and I had recently declared that we were madly in love, that this was the person with whom we wanted to spend the entire rest of our lives, and that nothing could ever come between us. And yet… huh… my fiance HAD been really dismissive about all the wedding centerpieces I had just spent an entire day assembling alone while he was away camping with his buddies…
As you’re probably aware, Marriage Story isn’t really a marriage story; it’s a Divorce Story. It is, I presume, a highly relatable film for the majority of people, either folks who have gone through their own divorces, or kids whose parents divorced. I, thankfully, do not have any direct personal experience with this. My parents are still together, and, like I said, I’m only on year two of my own marriage. So turn to someone else to find out how realistic this end-of-marriage depiction is. But as a human being who has had to interact with other human beings in my life, the general vibe of two people struggling to be civil while falling on each other’s nerves, or of having major gripes with one another which are never truly expressed, of falling out of love while not out of like, is presented quite effectively. This is in large part thanks to the capable acting chops of our two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, both of whom are deservedly nominated for their simmering-under-the-surface emotional performances.
The supporting roles are filled with extraordinary actors, including Laura Dern (nominated for her role), Merritt Wever (who was spectacular this year in Unbelievable), Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta. But these talented folks couldn’t really save what I saw as pretty one-dimensional characters. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta spar as evil divorce lawyers. Alan Alda is a kindhearted old soul. And for some reason Merritt Wever, Julie Hagerty, and Martha Kelly all play total idiots who can’t figure out basic concepts like how to hand over an envelope. Speaking of idiots… Shouldn’t these parents be WAY more concerned with the fact that their third grader is completely illiterate?! But I digress…
The secondary characters and subplots are all, well, secondary to two main themes: the ridiculousness of divorce as a concept (which was effectively presented here), and the ability for relationships to crumble overly seemingly nothing at all, just a million tiny cracks that spread and build until there’s nothing left to salvage. Like real life, there are moments of levity: interactions with those annoying clipboard-wielding kids who accost you on the street with a petition, a tragically hilarious scene where Adam Driver tries to play it cool while bleeding profusely, and (though this was not the intention of the filmmakers) the production of a super hilarious meme template.
But this movie is not funny. It’s serious as fuck. It’s basically a horror movie for married couples. Dear God, this could be any of us! How do we avoid becoming this? Do we communicate better? But THEY tried to communicate and it didn’t work! Do we agree to let the other always follow their dreams? But what if those dreams conflict?! Do we agree to do what’s best for our child? But what if we don’t agree on what’s best for our child?! Like teaching him to fucking read?! I moved a giant filing cabinet into our house that my spouse hates… and in this movie they’re divorcing because one of them hates the other person’s furniture! Oh no, what have I done?!?!?!
To distract myself from the looming cloud of my own love life’s presumed eventual demise, I’ll redirect this review to a personal preference of mine: I tend to hate most movies that are about filmmakers or writers. It feels lazy to me. This particular movie is about an actress (of film, TV, and stage) and a director (of stage). There’s no real reason why these have to be the professions of our characters, and I think I would have been drawn in more if they had more common, approachable lives.
I think this film would work better as a play (and I was kind of surprised to learn that it wasn’t). The main draws here are the two leads: their emotions, their interactions, their conversations. With the exception of some set design (specifically, Adam Driver’s stark LA apartment), there isn’t much value added here outside of their personal journeys and performances, which would be more tangible in awkward person and stripped back to their essence.
So, anyway, you’re going to absolutely hate this movie. If you can relate to it, it will depress you. If you can’t relate to it, it will depress you and bore you. If you have a special someone in your life, you should absolutely NOT select this for a quiet night in.
BUT… you’ll reluctantly admit that it is good. Enjoyable? No. But good? Blargh… Yes. It’s good.