Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have been married around ten years, and have a son named Henry (Azhy Robertson) together. When asked to list the things they love about one another, the write out lists that include a surprising amount of good points, surprising because they have been asked to pen them by a marriage therapist to make sure they know why they are divorcing. It is at Nicole's insistence, for she harbours resentment about Charlie's short affair when they were going through a previous bad patch, but more than that, she feels stifled by his dominance in her career: they both work in the theatre, and he has directed her many times...
Marriage Story seemed to be its writer and director Noah Baumbach seeking atonement for the behaviour that split up his first marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, which brought in all sorts of uncomfortable elements where you wondered if you were being asked to judge a couple in a work of fiction, or the real life circumstances that had inspired it. Without wishing to go through someone else's dirty laundry in public, Baumbach did not emerge from his split, resulting in his later marriage to star Greta Gerwig, exactly smelling of roses, and you could detect a need for his Charlie character to be more of the victim in the relationship than Nicole, if indeed they were both surrogates.
Then again, this was not a documentary, and an artist can use parts of their experience to feed into their work that does not follow into a carbon copy of those experiences, yet there was a sense of "Sure, I walked out on my wife, but what about meee?!" about the way this unfolded over the course of a very thorough two hours and a quarter. Here the point was this couple were having a divorce without the same justification to themselves that we, as outsiders here, cannot perceive in quite the same way. They were purposefully flawed to have the audience shift allegiances throughout, though the overall effect would more likely be you would pick your side early on.
Most people tended to blame Nicole for the break-up, much in the same way its obvious precedent Kramer vs Kramer would side with Dustin Hoffman's emotionally flailing husband. While that 1979 film was accused of pure soap opera under the guise of serious drama, Baumbach tried to head that summation off at the pass by interweaving allusions to Ingmar Bergman's relationship dramas through his plot, as if that association would bolster his case for paying attention to a pair of, let's face it, pretty privileged people. Mention Bergman in an American comedy-drama and it would not be Ingmar who immediately sprang to mind, however: you would be comparing Marriage Story to Woody Allen instead, and not always flatteringly since he had cornered the market in that material many decades before.
Indeed, one comparison was Allen's Husbands and Wives, one of his most scathing projects made when his own relationship sailed into some very choppy waters, but with its plentiful conversational scenes, maybe Baumbach more resembled the efforts of Henry Jaglom, the most obvious Allen imitator of the past decades. That was not necessarily a good thing, though this director was able to allow his actors breathing space to create accomplished performances within a situation that could have been seriously constricting: there was not one bad role reading, and support from the likes of Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Julie Hagerty were well-rounded even if they did skirt caricature (this was apparently humorous too). Dern in particular had a fine speech about the perception of wives vs husbands stemming from a conservative Christian morality that was hard to disagree with, but the fact this pair could have weathered their problems and still be loving and together was blatant early, and made this a slog to get to somewhere you reached an hour and a half before the credits rolled. Music by Randy Newman.