One Kind of Marriage Story

There was a time when the darkness and loneliness of divorce seemed to me tragically romantic. Probably, I was reading too much Andre Dubus and John Updike at the same time. Raymond Carver probably did not help either. There was a resigned dark humor to the characters, an alcoholic loneliness, and (for Dubus’ characters) a tangible and inescapable divine presence.

There is very little romanticizing of divorce in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019; streaming on Netflix). At one point, my wife said, “Anyone thinking about getting divorced should watch this movie.” I think we were about at the moment where Charlie (Adam Driver) is being overwhelmed by his initial consultation with the attorney Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta).

But the discomfort really begins with Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) first conversation with her attorney, Nora (Laura Dern). Laura Dern is, by turns, uncomfortably friendly to Nicole and cold-hearted steel with a smile toward Charlie and his first attorney (Alan Alda, whose character has “graduated” to an aging, contradictory family law attorney). Dern is so good that I wanted to hate her character completely.

Marriage Story is a bright light shined on how quickly a seemingly happy marriage (at least from the first seven-plus minutes) can disintegrate, and it lays open the fully dissected corpse for us to see. It is definitely a bleak picture. But honestly, it is not the devastating tragedy I expected. There are moving and affecting moments, but—at least for me—there is a distance from the characters. I would guess that much more of this movie would ring true for those who have gone through divorce, whether bitter or amicable. That, actually, is something the movie does well: showing how quickly amicability descends into bitterness.

Driver and Johansson are good, and the movie is frequently funny, but although it will probably win multiple awards, the extremely high praise it is receiving seems excessive. I suspect Marriage Story will be more memorable to me, but the experience of watching it was similar to watching Baumbach’s other divorce film, The Squid and the Whale. Honestly, other than thinking Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney were caustically brilliant, I honestly do not remember a lot of that story. But what has stuck with me is a depressing emptiness about the whole thing.

So, with Marriage Story. I believe the characters and their situation, but at the same time there is an unreality for me which remained after the last scene. Does Nicole tying Charlie’s shoe somehow indicate everything is going to work out well for everyone? I suppose it might be a glimpse of light for those who are trying to dig up a little hope when unhappiness makes divorce the default position. Maybe, again, it is just me. Maybe I would feel different if I had been divorced. If that is so, then I am glad it seems unreal.

And yet, I do not feel like the mood of the film ever pulls out of its downward spiral. There does not seem to be a single happily married couple in the movie (maybe Nicole’s sister?), or a couple where the spouses have only been married once. One reviewer concluded her review by writing, “Ultimately, Marriage Story is actually a pretty good argument against the institution of marriage, but it’s not one against the idea of love. It’s probably the most fulfilling experience you’ll have, courtesy of Netflix, all year.”

That is as near to the polar opposite of my experience as possible. It is not an argument about the “institution of marriage.” I do not know if it is any kind of argument at all. But if it is making a statement, all I am left with is how people have no idea what they are doing when it comes to marriage. All I see is a more sophisticated and cinematic depiction of the facile, unrealistic, and fantastical reasons for why people decide to get married—and, trust me, as a pastor counseling couples who want to get married, I have seen most of those reasons work their way to the surface at some point or another.

It does not appear to me that Nicole and Charlie have any “idea of love” themselves, and so we do not know what it is either. If there is an implicit idea, it starts with infatuation and proceeds to self-fulfillment and deciding whose turn it is to pursue which “dream.” They, like many couples, were apparently both ignorant and unrealistic about what marriage would mean, and when their unstated assumptions proved to be untrue or unattainable, the only option they could see is separation and divorce.

No doubt, ignorance and unrealistic expectations are universal when it comes to marriage. Nobody knows what he or she is getting into when it comes to making marriage vows. But that is why they are vows and not predictions. The things we say are not even really promises, although people view them as both promises and predictions. What we should be doing (since people have the seemingly unbreakable habit of getting married, even though they do not really believe in it as an “institution”) is making explicit how a marriage is entered into fully aware of our ignorance. This is why the classic vows of, “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us,” will always be a clearer indication of what we are (supposedly) doing than anything we can come up with ourselves.

Anything else is not “fulfilling” or an argument “for the idea of love.” It is the thin gruel of jaded, individualistic, cynical, and homeless children of a culture where divorce is the default. Then we try to convince ourselves we have had some kind of feast when it is all over. We all do whatever we can to uncover some hope in the ashes, but the half-burnt straws at which we grasp cannot keep us warm when the walls of the house have all fallen down around us. Marriage Story is well-acted, well-told, and excellently shot. The one thing it is not, is fulfilling.