Boaz, my 13-year-old son, was rummaging through a pile of Academy screeners fanned out across our TV stand when he lifted up one and brandished it for me to see. “Oh, I already saw this one,” he said.
I was expecting to look up and see a copy of “Missing Link” or “Toy Story 4.” But no, it was “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s account of an artsy, white bicoastal couple’s expensive divorce that nabbed six Oscar nominations, including original screenplay for Baumbach.
“You did?” I said. “You watched it?”
“Yeah, it was on Netflix,” he shrugged nonchalantly. “It was pretty good. I watched it twice.”
I suppose some mothers might be concerned that their impressionable, newly minted teen whiled away four and a half hours absorbed in an R-rated movie peppered with the F-word, fiery arguments over infidelity and a scene in which an explosively emotional Adam Driver punches a hole through the wall of his L.A. rental apartment, but let’s be real: There’s nothing in “Marriage Story” more harrowing than what’s on the nightly news. In a world in which kids are slaughtered by AK-47s in the classroom and students are subjected to lockdown drills at school, a fictionalized drama about divorce in the modern age is like an episode of “Sesame Street” in comparison (a “very special episode,” but still). Truth be told, I was impressed that Boaz was beginning to develop such sophisticated taste in cinema; this was a giant step up from twerking tutorials on YouTube.
But I was curious for another reason: My husband and I were getting divorced and Boaz and his sister, Ayla, were the children caught in the crosshairs. Had watching “Marriage Story” further traumatized him — or did it provide some sense of comfort that he wasn’t alone in the dissolution of our once intact nuclear family?
“What did you think of it?” I asked him. “Did it make you feel sad? Are you OK?”
“I like the lawyer scenes,” he said. “I guess because they were realistic. The guy who played the grandson of Darth Vader was good. The scenes where they were fighting she acted like a 5-year-old, so I guess she did a good job.”
Maybe this was a learning moment, I thought. Maybe Boaz and I could sit down and work our way through the entire repertoire of Great Divorce Cinema, from Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” to “The Squid and the Whale,” another semi-autobiographical divorce drama written and directed by Baumbach.
Maybe this could be healing, hopeful.
“You want to watch ‘Kramer vs. Kramer?’” I asked Boaz. I was a weird, loner kid and “Kramer vs. Kramer” was one of my favorite films growing up, a film I watched when I was probably too young to watch it, but one that was deeply impactful all the same. Perhaps on some deep subconscious level I knew that one day some of the film’s key, now-famous sequences (i.e., the burning French toast kitchen scene — my ex did all the cooking) would function as a primer for my own divorce decades later. Perhaps I was just practical in considering statistics: about 50% of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce or separation.
“Sure, I’ll watch that ‘Kramer’ movie, but later,” said Boaz. And then he turned back to the Pokemon Sword game on his Nintendo Switch: “I found Pikachu!”
In the interest of full disclosure, I thought “Marriage Story” was pretty ridiculous the first time I saw it, ticking off its various plot holes and legal implausibilities. I could not get past them. For example, it makes no sense that Charlie (Adam Driver’s stage director protagonist) resorts to taking their son to a Sunset Boulevard Pink Dot on Halloween when L.A. offers a bounty of trick-or-treating options (Nicole, Scarlett Johansson’s native Angeleno heroine, and the boy’s mother, would have obviously known this). And the montage in which Charlie races around to retain a lawyer that Nicole has not yet interviewed (again, in Los Angeles, a county with thousands of divorce attorneys), felt far-fetched and outlandish. Is it possible that Nicole met with every family law expert in the greater Los Angeles area, making it unethical for said attorneys to represent Charlie? Sure. Is it likely? Hardly. It was all so wildly out of step for a character who we learn at the film’s outset didn’t even want to use divorce lawyers until she fell under the spell of Nora, Laura Dern’s svengali of a power attorney, who lures Nicole in with a cup of manuka honey tea and gourmet cookies.
We’re not even sure how Nicole, a theater actor, can afford Nora’s hefty fee (later, there’s a line about Nicole’s mother taking out a second mortgage on the house), but it doesn’t seem to matter. As far as we know, Nicole’s festering resentment and relationship dissatisfaction (she’s got every right, of course; Charlie committed adultery) serve as the currency needed to retain Nora’s services. And a film that’s ostensibly about divorce becomes almost less about the unraveling of a marriage than it does about white privilege and the high-cost attorneys that, with every billable hour, wind up making an even further mess of pretty much everything.
I’m also having a completely different divorce — in my “Discount Divorce Story,” our supremely inept mediator doesn’t even have her own office. She rents conference space in a building — albeit a fairly nice one with coffee and snacks in the lobby.
But that Boaz found “Marriage Story” compelling enough to watch twice made me realize, maybe I should too. Maybe I was missing something. So I did. And this time, I was able to strip away those parts that weren’t relevant to my own marital dysfunction, and lean in to the parts that were: Nicole and I are both slobs, and I once gave my ex a trumpet as a gift during his Chet Baker phase. We once had a therapist who asked us to write a list of things we liked about each other. Like Nicole, I felt unheard, invisible. My ex and I weathered tragedies from which neither of us ever fully recovered.
We both punched walls and threw plates and remote controls and pillows.
In one of “Marriage Story’s” more feverish scenes, Nicole and Charlie become embroiled in a row that felt all too familiar.
“I can’t believe that I have to know you forever!” Nicole screams.
And I get that, too. Because whatever relationships come next, whatever that looks like and in whatever shape they take form, it’s highly unlikely that either of us will have more children.
The ones we already have, those two will be ours, alone, forever.
But what struck me the most about “Marriage Story,” and which, I admit, I had dismissed as cartoonish and silly the first time, is the scene in which Charlie sings “Being Alive,” from the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Company.” It’s a song — an anthem — in which Charlie, now divorced from Nicole, reflects upon loss and love and the eventual path onward, to other loves and losses that will inevitably transpire. My ex and I had our problems, but we also had music, well over a decade’s worth, from Marvin Gaye to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. He took me to my first “Guided by Voices” show; our daughter was conceived after a Barry Manilow concert (I’m an unapologetic Fanilow). I thought about what my own “Company” moment might be. And what his would be, too.
But how do you pick just one swan song after 16 years together?
Our divorce would require an entire soundtrack.
With several songs still to come.