Conscious Uncoupling is for the Rich
For a society that accepts divorce as common, we sure do run circles around this wrenching phase of life on film. Blame escapism, idealism or art itself: filmmakers tell stories about divorce as a springboard for empowerment (The First Wives’ Club, Waiting to Exhale, Under the Tuscan Sun), a twee adventure for kids to navigate (Parent Trap, Mrs. Doubtfire), or a narrative wall stud for farcical physical comedy (War of the Roses, Death Becomes Her, The Ref).
My divorce, now a decade in the rearview mirror, was not empowering or wacky or adventurous. Nature shows where wolves rip open a carcass on a windy steppe reflect it better than any Hollywood product. I didn’t find myself in Italy or have a merry mixup that led to my real true love, or get sweet revenge. I shredded my wedding certificate and drank my dark feelings and didn’t bother anybody with my thoughts about the whole stupid mess. Director Noah Baumbach is taking a different tack from all of the above with his latest life-imitating-arthouse drama, Marriage Story. Critics are gargling over its “emotional realism,” but besides being honest about the crappy pain of an unraveling marriage and the bittersweetness of moving on with the rest of life, what does Marriage Story really have to say that most of us haven’t already felt?
Marriage Story, for all its lauded authenticity, is a comfortable tale of pseudo-celebrities consciously uncoupling in a realistic-enough way that allows viewers to feel like they’ve worked through some heavy stuff.
Gwyneth Paltrow, who named her company after slime, popularized the term “conscious uncoupling”. It’s a comforting and trendy reframing of a traumatic event with the reassuring precision of a NASA mission, where the mission was divorce from the start. Everyone deals with the issue like rational adults and carefully, considerately, consciously bows out of couplehood like they’ve been practicing it since the wedding, and a year later they’re wine tasting together in Napa with new lovers and new perspectives, friends all around. Marriage Story, for all its lauded authenticity, is a comfortable tale of pseudo-celebrities consciously uncoupling in a realistic-enough way that allows viewers to feel like they’ve worked through some heavy stuff.
Baumbach first tackled his parents’ split in 2005’s semiautobiographical The Squid and the Whale, in which an acrimonious literary divorce affects two Brooklyn teens. His newest vision echoes the ennui of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage, tacking between infidelity, brutal honesty, regret, recrimination, and the strange, lasting bonds of family through loss and change. And while Baumbach says his 2010 divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh didn’t influence his work on Marriage Story, the parallels with his life are hard to overlook–or render relatable without the enormous talent of Adam Driver.
Marriage Story is a filmmaker’s idea of divorce limited to his immediate scope of reference, a myopic and privileged saga of two arty personalities (Driver as Charlie, Scarlett Johansson as Nicole) who can’t be together any more because of too much artiness and personality, and who have the money to bicker indefinitely about in which glamorous coastal city they should raise their child as their relationship withers. An actress who grew up in Hollywood and a famous New York stage director fight over a $600,000 MacArthur Genius Grant (who hasn’t?), hire high-priced attorneys in high-rise offices, and complain about the respective burdens of their successful creative projects. Relatable!
The film does strike some chords with the commoners as our couple toggles between the personal and impersonal, the intimately painful and coldly institutional facets of divorce. Baumbach uses financial tension as a neat catchpoint in the unraveling relationship, like the scene where the lawyers (Alan Alda and Laura Dern) pause their high-stakes sparring to order lunch, casually agreeing over the menu’s quality while Charlie is too traumatized to pick a meal. Later, the impeccably-Pilates’d Dern makes friendly small talk with opposing attorney Ray Liotta about a Fiji vacation before a vicious tangle in court.
Adam Driver moves into a Sad Single Dad Apartment to show that divorce is hard and expensive, which looks much like my own apartment minus surviving plants, and reminds me of Kirk Milhouse’s bachelor pad on the Simpsons.
Their kid doesn’t like hanging out in Charlie’s toyless hovel, and is generally uncooperative during holidays and CPS visits. Meanwhile, Nicole wants to go back to being sort of famous in LA, and her biggest problem seems to be that the gate on her mom’s luxury condo is stuck open.
Baumbach’s urge to consciously uncouple our Charlie and Nicole by making them Woody Allen characters costs him the emotional heft of the film. Johansson’s Sound-of-Music pixie hair, the swelling string score, the overstuffed domestic scenes of home haircuts and toy dinosaur play, cringey mom/adult daughter musical numbers, and Nicole’s bougie-whimsical birthday gift of a trumpet her husband doesn’t know how to play (those things cost like 400 bucks), distance her from the hoi polloi. Johansson, who also worked with Allen on Match Point and other films, carries none of the charm and warmth of, say, Diane Keaton to sell these bourgeois peccadillos. Her dialogue is clunky and self-conscious, and what could be insightful tete-a-tetes spin out on her blocky delivery like Legos scattered on a roller rink.
Baumbach doesn’t ask viewers to pick a side, but rather jibe through the ebb and flow that defines and universalizes divorce. Yes, that means that everyone will be friends in the end. But circumstances and civility aside, the resonance of Marriage Story is not in the universality of its details, but catching and reflecting fragments of our unique emotional experiences. I was dumbstruck by one scene where Charlie rage-sobs, “every day I wake up and I hope you’re dead! … I hope you get an illness, and then get hit by a car and die!” There are my wolves, raw and bloody, the carcass of a marriage spit out in single syllables: a curse, a death wish, a real, painful unconscious uncoupling of the ego. It sounds weird, but it was a profound relief.