In An Introduction to Film Genres, Friedman defines the genre of melodrama as, “Films centering on personal relationships…that seek to elicit spectator sympathy for the film’s protagonists and tell their story in a lighthearted style that may include spectacular effects, implausible coincidences, plot twists, and a clear dichotomy between good and evil” (Friedman, 85). Marriage Story certainly has some of these characteristics but shies away from anything unrealistic or implausible and also doesn’t draw neat distinctions between protagonist and antagonist. The two main characters antagonize each other, yet the story is told in a way that makes us root for both of them. Ultimately, the couple (together) is the hero. And in their separation, neither seems complete as the protagonist.
I watched this film one and a half times, and I’m sure I would pick up on new elements with subsequent viewings. The first time through, I walked away mostly thinking about the failed marriage, the relationship which was not able to hold. I loved the scene where Johansson and Driver have a prolonged screaming argument in the apartment – they insult and degrade each other full force, the raw pain and baggage finally being aired. Each compares the other to their parents, which is taken as a below-the-belt insult. It’s clear both characters have a lot of emotional baggage from their past. As I watched I thought, “If they could have had this conversation in act 1, they would’ve made it.” And at the end they end up in each other’s arms apologizing. Director Noah Baumbach says of the scene, “It’s a cruel, relentless duet of a scene — but ultimately offers relief” (Sollosi).
The second time through I noticed how much Johansson’s character (Nicole) was taken with Charlie, even though broke away from him. In the first meeting with her lawyer, she’s awkward and weak in her conversation (the high angles and long shots make her look really small). But once she starts talking about Charlie, her demeanor changes completely. She walks around and speaks comfortably, confidently. In another scene Charlie gives Nicole a “note,” a comment about her performance that night, and tells her she was too dramatic in her delivery. Later on, Nicole prefaces a remark to Charlie with, “I promise to say this as un-dramatically as possible.” It’s clear she still values his opinion and even wants his approval.
In the beginning of the film, this couple agrees they want to cut the cord, get the divorce and make a clean break. Ultimately, they are not able – the ties are to strong and too deep to sever with signatures on paper. I really liked how Marriage Story depicted the awkwardness of the characters figuring out how to live out a sudden, life altering decision. They think they can just break it off, but Nicole keeps calling Charlie “honey,” Charlie is the one she calls to come fix her entrance gate, Nicole has to order Charlie’s lunch at a settlement meeting because no one else (Charlie included) knows what he wants to eat, and in the final scene he stands there while she ties his shoe for him. It’s awkward to watch, and there are no clear winners.
Marriage Story depicts the tension between the legal and the emotional, bureaucracy and humanity. Both spouses drop thousands of dollars on lawyer fees and in a desperate attempt to get themselves clear of each other, but the past proves much too dense and meaning filled to easily get free from. It is painful to watch, but very powerful in a melodramatic way, how Charlie and Nicole must lay down their humanity as they fight each other in a legal battle. I thought the film did a great job of framing this as a key tension throughout the narrative. Winning in court against a spouse and retaining the humanity that bound you together seem almost mutually exclusive. Marriage Story is a beautiful film about breaking apart.
Sollosi, Mary, and Mary Sollosi. “Noah Baumbach Breaks down the Devastating ‘Marriage Story’ Fight Scene .” EW.com, 7 Dec. 2019, ew.com/movies/2019/12/07/marriage-story-noah-baumbach-fight-scene/.
Friedman, Lester et al. An Introduction to Film Genres. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.