The quality of the Best Picture nominees for 2020 far outweighs that of 2019. That’s not to say that they are a comprenesive list of the best films of the past year, the Oscars are not and have never have been a great measure of that, yet some of them could make a very strong case. The Irishman is great, Parasite is great, Little Women is great, Jojo Rabbit is great, 1917 will probably win, and Joker and Once Upon a Time are interesting enough without being amazing. Okay, no, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a waste of a film and my opinion on it hasn’t softened, and I literally forgot about Ford v Ferrari until I typed out its title right here, so maybe I’m being a little over-generous there.
What all of these films have in common is high stakes: will the soldiers complete their mission? Will Jojo keep the Jewish girl safe? Will one car be faster than another over the period of 24 hours? (dear God, it’s hard to make that film sound interesting). The characters of The Irishman are one wrong move away from death at all times. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood tantalizes with the promise of being Tarantino’s last film. Truly, stakes raised high across the board.
Yet high stakes are not defined by impending death. When done right, they can be the crumbling of a marriage, a divorce that has a child at the center of it, two people who have to learn to live without each other while still being part of each others lives. Noah Baumbach’s simply titled Marriage Story effortlessly makes these experiences feel like life and death, and with the help of two actors at the top of their game, he crafts a story of the familiar that dwells of the intricacies of the destruction and creation of something new that can be the reality of a divorce.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as a New York theater couple – he is the director and she his star performer – as we follow the process of their divorce. Things start out fairly amicably; we even begin the film with the couple reciting a list of what they love about the other person. It’s a beautiful opening, giving us an easy way of getting to know these characters that doesn’t feel cheap or merely functional. Or perhaps it would have, but when it comes to actually reading these lists out to each other, Nicole (Johansson) refuses. It’s unclear why until Nicole moves to Los Angeles and talks to her lawyer Nora, played by the outstanding Laura Dern, about how she feels like she has been marching to the beat of Charlie’s (Driver) drum for all the years of their marriage, and this divorce represents a chance to push back against that.
What keeps Marriage Story from feeling to heavy, or cliched, is that we get to see both of Nicole and Charlie at their best and worst, how their divorce has become about winning instead of what is best for their son. As Nicole felt almost invisible in the marriage we see Charlie feeling the same way through the separation: like photos of himself with his in-laws disappearing, Baumbach uses the motif of ghosts to externalize Charlie’s feelings of displacement from his son and his old life. He spends a sadly humorous montage dressed as the Invisible Man, and his theater company is also called Exit Ghost. Okay, so it’s not subtle, but this is good stuff.
Charlie is obviously based on the director, a character who a lot of people in this film call a genius (though only Nicole seems to mean it), yet there is no sense that the film is taking the side of one character over the other. Yet that is the nature of divorce: as Alan Alda puts it “a death without a body”. They can be amicable, but think about your own experience – you probably know at least one that started with the best intentions only to turn ugly as hell.
That’s what Marriage Story shows us. We are given Nicole and Charlie at their best so we can remember those characteristics as things turn nasty. No-one is at their best in a break-up, especially when there is kids involved, but this story offers us a look into how difficult this transition can be, and how strange it is to be connected but not together – a true look into life post-love.
Welcome to Oscar Season! Catch up on our previous coverage right here, and weigh in with your opinions on the nominations below!
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Angelus News)