Marriage Story, Being Alive: An Analysis


Marriage Story is a two year-old Netflix movie that would’ve been firmly welcomed in theaters. It’s critically acclaimed, with many nominations for its direction and screenplay, but where it stands out from an audience perspective is its naturalistic dialogue and character action. Characters talk over each other like people do in real life, and you get to see Scarlett Johansson as a divorced mom do a monolog without stopping as she takes a pee. Nicole and Charlie Barber are the two main characters we follow through their story about breaking apart, getting a divorce, and holding custody over the son they both love dearly. The two clearly hold grudges against each other for most of the film, even when they try to keep it calm and under control for a while. For two out of three acts, one sees the other as the villain, yet the film convinces us to root for both. In a story carefully wrapped in realism, or maybe because of it, the movie showcases “show-don’t-tell” in a spectacular way that I’ve never seen in a movie before. There are two consecutive scenes, for instance, where another of several tools is used to convey what they’re feeling, and it’s done through music. Yes, for a moment the most realistic film on Netflix is a musical. 

Nicole Barber loves her mom and her sister, so who better to perform her musical number with than these two? The song they sing is an abridged version of “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” from the musical Company. The three are performing in a setting where Nicole feels the most at home as compared to the space she shared with Charlie: it’s decorated to her liking and she’s surrounded by people she loves and respects in a housewarming party. We’ll see why this is important later. The performance is really casual and unprofessionally choreographed; it’s just three relatives singing and dancing for some kids and friends. But it’s a little more than that—it says something. “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” is a song about the singers getting into a romantic relationship only for the person to become emotionally absent in a strange way. That could drive a person crazy. The lines “I’m working up my charms” and “a zombie’s in my arms” show the singers are doing what they can to keep the relationship afloat, but only to receive a zombie of a person in return. This speaks to how Nicole sees Charlie and what their relationship felt like for her. Sometimes you’re with someone who isn’t evil at all, and they’re a regular, empathizing person, but there’s either no emotional connection, or it fades away the closer you get. So drifting apart is inevitable. Though, just because Nicole doesn’t see her ex-husband as someone to stay with as a life partner, just because she doesn’t feel as though that’s good for her at all, this doesn’t mean she doesn’t love Charlie. The lines in the outro of the song, “You’re crazy, you’re a lovely person” may have been sarcasm in the original context of Company, but for Nicole it means she still loves the man through this layer of crazy. But who is this man?

In the next scene, when Charlie is sitting down in a restaurant with actors he knows—because he directs plays—a pianist is playing a song from a play. As he recognizes it, he begins to sing along, and he’s so captivated by the music that he decides to get up and walk over to the microphone. So begins his own musical number: “Being Alive,” another song from Company. The people around him, who all know him, are intrigued as he begins, and entertained, laughing as he impersonates characters from the play in between lyrics. After he’s had his fun, and he’s applauded as he’s about to sit back down, he instead continues. When he reaches the microphone again, something shifts. “Being Alive” is a song about what being alive means, and the singer decides that to be alive is to be in a relationship so close it could hurt—because of all the imperfections you see—but to be given all the love you can get. It’s frightening, but a relationship like this should bring out the best in both people. What shifts in the middle of the song is the attitude of the singer, who’s now deciding he wants a relationship such as this. It’s during this part of Charlie’s number that the camera is fixed on him, everything is silent except him and the piano. It’s one man singing about the life he desires. “Make me alive, make me alive.” Once his song comes to an end, a six second silence feels like ten, and the scene fades to black. That silence is what stood out to me as one of the best show-don’t-tell moments of the film. In contrast to Nicole, who’s living a life surrounded by those she loves, Charlie is surrounded yet alone. His old group, his cast and crew, don’t make him alive. Throughout the movie, they’re only shown obeying his directions and agreeing with what he says. There’s nothing wrong with obeying your director, but they give off the impression of yes-men who aren’t willing to bring out the best in him like a true friend, and it’s especially clear in this scene. On the other hand, he was close with Nicole, but they ended up not bringing out the best in each other, hence the divorce.

We see that the point of the movie is for both of these people to be alive, which must happen apart from each other in this case. Nicole gets the LA home she’s always wanted, but Charlie—despite originally wanting to be in New York—takes residency in LA as well and continues his career there. They’re both free to continue their lives decently as they’re apart, but Charlie still interestingly chooses to be near. When he visits Nicole and walks in on his son, Henry, reading something, he gives it a read himself. Before long we recognize it as Nicole’s letter she wrote for him at the start of the film. We see him tear up as he reads the takeaway of it all: “I’ll never stop loving [Charlie], even if it doesn’t make sense anymore.” That’s it. You don’t have to like someone to love them. If being by someone’s side hurts too much, you can still show them that you care, even though you’re apart. Nicole didn’t have to let her ex-husband hang out with her son on her night, but she did. She didn’t have to tie Charlie’s shoe lace on his way out, but she did. And that action being the last action before the credits roll is the simple, perfect way to end their marriage story. Or is it more of a divorce story? Either way, it shows that the pain is over, and a platonic basis can flourish. 

Categories: Entertainment, Opinion

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