For all the marketing and reviews touting Marriage Story as a sob story (attendees to the New York film premiere were handed tissues branded with the film’s poster), you might be surprised to learn that it’s also very funny. The film’s divorce between theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is intense, but within the tiny war waged between the two young parents is a whole tornado of intellectual disputes: Los Angeles vs. New York, Hollywood vs. “real” theatrical art, the struggle between male “geniuses” and their often silenced women muses.
As a movie inarguably sympathetic to divorced dads, Marriage Story is Adam Driver’s movie, while Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole feels incomplete, a collection of monologues rather than a real person. But in the days after seeing Marriage Story, I didn’t think of Driver or Johansson so much as I thought of an actress who is only in the movie for one or two scenes: Merritt Wever.
Early in the film, when Nicole decides she must divorce Charlie, she enlists her sister Cassie (Wever) to actually serve the papers to her husband. And as they pace around the sunny California kitchen of their mom’s home (Julie Hagerty), what ensues is Marriage Story’s funniest, weirdest scene, as Cassie tries to tipsily serve Charlie the papers, which feel like a bomb in their manilla envelope. It should be a stoic, calculated move, and it falls apart spectacularly, not unlike Wever’s incredibly charming 2013 Emmy’s acceptance speech where she coolly told the audience she had “to go, bye!” “I just get NERVOUS!” she yells at one point, exasperated by her new role, wine glass still in hand. As she tries to usher Nicole and Charlie’s son Henry out of the downstairs bathroom, far from the kitchen, she slides into the kitchen almost Risky Business-style to announce that he’s “mid-poop” pinching her fingers in the air, measuring an invisible inch.
When Charlie finally arrives at the house, suddenly Cassie is alone with him, balancing a clearly store-bought pie on a stack of papers. “What kind of pie is that?” Charlie asks. “Pe.... can,” she responds, slowly sounding out the word like an alien on its first day on Earth. “I don’t know...,” she trails off when asked it if she made the pie. “NO! It’s store-bought.” Eventually, Charlie finds the envelope casually sitting next to the toaster, picking it up himself. “Wait!” Cassie says, before taking the papers from him and tepidly handing them back. “You’ve been... served?” she seems to ask the universe, audience included, before hightailing it out of the mortifying scenario. I wasn’t sure I could even answer her question.
The scene is the first door inside the mind-melting bureaucracy of fancy-schmancy divorce proceedings that become the movie’s entire framework, and Wever is our anxious and confused guardian. For all of Marriage Story’s grabs for the audience’s pity, the film’s best moments come in these bizarre interactions, which make little sense to those who haven’t (and hopefully never will) undergo the painful process of custody proceedings. They also seem to make little sense to the film’s characters, who gawk at the aggressive rhetoric of Los Angeles power lawyers and visitations from a monotone, unreadable wet blanket supervisor intended to comment on custody battles.
Baumbach has traditionally been an extremely dry director and screenwriter, especially when it comes to writing relationships. One of my favorite movie scenes is from Baumbach’s movie Kicking and Screaming, when Parker Posey tells her boyfriend she cheated on him by writing it in big fat Sharpie letters on a notepad and showing it to him from across the room, before waiting a second and then adding a big :( face. “I almost had an affair, too, but you don’t have to do it,” Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character tells Nicole Kidman, almost bored, in his highly dysfunctional 2007 movie Margot at the Wedding. “You can, I don’t know, get a manicure or something.”
Those films, in the shallow and witty ways they depict crumbling marriages, feel so far from the goofy, highly physical scenes of Marriage Story. Marriage Story’s divorce can be painful and messy, but Wever’s performance highlights just how ridiculous and darkly funny it can be.