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In Defense of the ‘Marriage Story’ Fans Whose Minds Are Blown by Actual Acting

This is what happens when the geek hive trains its focus on a domestic drama — without the special effects or mythic archetypes

Award season is just around the corner, which means we are neck-deep in the glut of December movies positioned to win some awards. These are the films with meaty topics and marquee names directing and starring, all marketed to hell and back by studios with a clear thirst for the prestige of gold statuettes. An increasingly cinematic Netflix is perhaps the thirstiest among them, producing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. The upshot of all this is that regular entertainment hype cycles are turbocharged: A title with significant buzz can’t be merely “good” — it must shift the conversation, change its viewers. It must transcend.

Of course, movies almost by definition fail to meet our highest expectations. (Except for Parasite, which is flawless.) The award-bait is no different; if anything, it’s an opportunity for greater disappointment. Where Marriage Story is concerned, audiences seem a bit underwhelmed compared to the rapture of critics. As though in response to that hesitancy, a legion of admirers are holding up the performances from co-leads Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a pinnacle of dramatic art. Both have been nominated for a Golden Globe, so it’s not as if Hollywood isn’t recognizing them, and yet the zeal of their supporters is… extreme.

As this heavily echoed reply above illustrates, the ScarJo-and-Driver street team sounds deeply in awe of either actor’s ability to meet the basic requirements of their profession: memorizing lines, conveying emotion and grounding a narrative in the realist matter of human lives. That’s the job! Also, did you know they can shoot more than one take? You’re free to debate how well they did with Baumbach’s script and direction; it just feels like a stretch to say they reinvented the wheel here.

What’s more, the domestic agonies of a fraying relationship (the pair portray a couple going through a divorce) are the bread-and-butter of any first-year theater student. That is, Driver and Johansson aren’t operating outside their comfort zone. So one takes pause from a tweet, since deleted thanks to ridicule, where someone posted two minutes of a pivotal scene and declared that the two had “invented acting.”

Again, you could argue to the end of the year whether this film succeeds on the raw strength of these moments, how a lack of context renders them ridiculous or that the Marriage Story arguments are plainly histrionic. Baumbach is a deft-enough auteur to challenge our ideas of naturalism vs. artifice, and the degree to which we stage actual confrontation.

This, however, isn’t the kind of discourse we’re seeing, and it may have to do with the baggage that Johansson and Driver bring with them: fandom.

She belongs to the main ensemble of the Avengers series and, by popular demand, has an upcoming standalone superhero movie as Black Widow. He is Kylo Ren, the primary villain of the current Star Wars trilogy. The people sharing Marriage Story clips with fawning commentary on their talent are often young, and many post about one or the other in an obsessive fashion that fits the criteria for “stanning,” or absolutist loyalty and continual admiration that bears only a glancing relationship to the actors’ work. The same individual amazed that Johansson can handle a six-minute monologue without ad-libbing (and how do they actually know she didn’t?) is also daily trumpeting her career achievements, including her status as 2019’s “highest-paid actress.” This is the worship of success, not craft.

And these same folks refuse to brook the emergence of opinions that contrast with theirs:

Such defensiveness is normal in this fervid part of the geek hive, where nuance is a weakness and content is pre-judged according to an agenda of celebrity allegiance. Short of literally breaking character, would any showing from Driver or Johansson draw less than superlative acclaim from their bases?

The unusual thing is seeing that passion applied to a movie that is, in earnest, an acting showcase. I’d guess the stans are accustomed to heaping praise on these Hollywood favorites for blockbusters whose special effects and fantasy are the true draw, and whose cast members are faces floating against a green screen. In Marriage Story, the loud, shiny monoculture aesthetic takes a backseat to what actors have, after all, been trained to do. That may well be a revelatory experience for someone raised on steroidal, image-focused franchises, and translating your pop tribalism to comment on art-house product is correspondingly awkward. Sci-fi and superhero discourse trains you to cross-examine plot threads and mythic archetypes, but it’s not as big on the subtleties (or lack thereof) in molding a screen presence.

At any rate, nobody needs to worry. It looks as if Johansson and Driver are slated for the recognition that their vocal enthusiasts worry will be denied; it hardly strikes these folks that the reason they even know who the actors are, and are primed to root for their triumph, is an industry that courts adulation, always hoping to reward its most profitable stars. The silver lining to this cynical gloss resides in the stans’ openness to a new experience: If they’re blown away by the theatrical potential of two people speaking and gesturing some fiction in a simple apartment set, instead of an overpowering but generic dreamscape, that’s a net good. We can forgive them for being a little too excited, and for their hyperbole. It’s a different way of reading film, one they will have to get used to. And maybe, in time, they’ll see the value of dissent.