Marriage Story, agreed, is Kramer-like in some ways, and at the same time less so in others.
The key difference, I believe, is that Kramer delivers a stronger, more emotional gut punch in terms of primal family conflict, step-by-step character revelation and especially by way of a gripping courtroom climax, and all of it fortified by flawless, profoundly effective performances.
Baumbach’s lead characters, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), are sensible, perceptive and intelligent 30somethings with careers in the performing arts, and with a mild issue or two. Both are afflicted with somewhat selfish, competitive and headstrong attitudes, or at least in each other’s presence. But because of their self-knowledge and reasonableness there isn’t much in the way of character arcs or changes. Baumbach isn’t playing on that court.
But Benton is playing this game by way of Dustin Hoffman‘s Ted Kramer, a Manhattan ad agency creative who starts out as an aggressively nervous, insensitive, somewhat brittle alpha male and certainly no one’s idea of a good father. Meryl Streep is Ted’s wife Joanna, initially a woman suffering from depression and a floundering sense of identity.
But after Joanna leaves Ted is, for the first time in his life, the sole guardian and caretaker of his son (Justin Henry, who’s now pushing 50!) and grappling with each and every parental challenge on his own. Measure by measure he undergoes a gradual emotional growth arc — advanced dickishness to tolerably flawed to 100% devotional passion to his son.
Kramer may sound formulaic on paper but it’s believable and well-observed for the most part. It’s a movie about gradual, initially-fought-against changes for the better. And yet Benton’s script doesn’t oppressively spoon-feed.
Plus Kramer vs. Kramer is only 104 minutes long (it’s so skillfully assembled that you don’t notice the density as time flies by) while Marriage Story is 136 minutes, or roughly a half-hour longer.
This isn’t to suggest that Marriage Story doesn’t get you. It was the biggest hit of Telluride ’19, and for good reason. I felt completely at home and intimately involved every step of the way.
But side by side Kramer is, I feel, the slightly more poignant of the two. It has a way of seeping into your chest cavity, especially during Benton’s second and third acts. You can feel it coming together and gathering strength.
Marriage Story especially connects during that bar scene in which Driver sings that Stephen Sondheim song from Company. And the performances by Driver and ScarJo are easily the best of their careers.
Benton’s 40-year-old divorce and child custody drama won five Oscars — Best Picture, Director (Benton), Actor (Hoffman), Adapted Screenplay (Benton) and Supporting Actress (Streep).
Marriage Story will be competing for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Driver), Actress (ScarJo), Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Score (Randy Newman) and so on.