Who knows why certain line readings stick in the brain. Maybe it’s a special alchemy of text and diction that reminds you of a thing you wish you’d said that one time, or the way your own voice never seems to sound as right. So many bits of movie dialogue bounce around in my brain: Carrie Fisher saying “married” in When Harry Met Sally. Beanie Feldstein saying “titular role” in Lady Bird. Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw snatching a bag of weed from her boyfriend’s mom.
There is a line like this in Marriage Story that, at face value, is totally innocuous, but I can’t get it out of my head. It crosses my mind as I ride the train, sneaks into my subconscious as I swallow a melatonin and drift off to sleep. I’ll be walking down the street and start breaking out into hysterics because, my God, this line! By some stroke of fortune or the ire of a certain bog witch I upset in a previous life, there it plays, in a loop, in my mind: You shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her!!!1!!!1!1!!! You shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her. You? Shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her. You? Should be upset that I had a laugh with her! YoU shOUldN’T Be uPsET thAt i FuckEd HEr, yoU ShOUlD bE upSET thAt i hAd a LAUgH wiTh hEr!
And sometimes, in the key of Blac Chyna from her short-lived reality show with Rob Kardashian: Are you still having a laugh with her, yes or no?!
It’s easy to dunk on this scene, presented out of context or in memes. But Marriage Story earns its boiling point: At this point, soon-to-be-exes Charlie (Adam Driver, big) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have spent so much time talking around their problems — via their divorce lawyers or in half-seconds of privacy as they exchange custody of their son — that by the time they sit down and actually talk through them, it feels like a release and a reckoning all at once. They have fundamentally different ideas about what happened in their marriage. They have fundamentally different ideas about the people they were married to, ideas that don’t neatly fit within categories of villain or victim. They start discussing why Nicole wants to leave their family home in New York for Los Angeles, the both of them veering into vicious digs, personal and professional. Charlie is too selfish to be a great director. Nicole’s best acting is behind her.
Then it happens. Nicole plays her trump card: She’s divorcing Charlie because he fucked someone else. He did the bad thing; he cheated! This is a fight she can win!
And here is Charlie’s defense: “You shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her,” he says. “You should be upset that I had a laugh with her!”
Let me be unambiguous: This is the funniest freaking thing I’ve ever heard in my entire freaking life.
For all the quibbles I might have with Marriage Story — it needed more lawyers bickering, more Merritt Wever, less of that heinous Halloween shoe-tying — Noah Baumbach has a keen sense of humor: “Why is there always a flirty grip?” is such a specifically funny thing to say. (Ditto Nicole’s drunken hookup with said flirty grip in his car: “Just fingering. I’m changing my whole fucking life!” should be embroidered onto a blanket, like, yesterday.) When I first heard the Charlie line in question, in a darkened theater in Toronto, it took me out of the scene. It took me out of my body. I actually ascended to a higher level of existence called the Heaviside Layer. Charlie’s wife has just shamed him for breaking the most important bond of their marriage, and his response is: Sure, but it’s actually your priorities, in this moment, that are incorrect. It’s not heartbreaking that I fucked a woman we worked with; it’s heartbreaking that I had a good time with a woman we worked with. Maybe before or after we fucked, who can be sure, really? Charlie’s wife has confronted him with how much his infidelity hurt her — and by extension, their marriage — and this adult man’s response is: Stop focusing on the sex. Start focusing on the laughs!
Like I said — pure comedy! I love this line and its utter absurdity, the way he suggests that it, uh, matters more that he enjoyed himself, even superficially. He slept with another woman! I wish I could inject this line and all its hilarity into my veins. I wasn’t sure how to do that, though, so I wrote it down on a scrap of paper from a bag of Dos Toros (sponsor me) and placed it upright on my desk.
This will do until I can print out this script excerpt and pin it to my desk:
In just this one line, all of Charlie’s shortcomings are laid bare. One of which is the fact that he fucked some other woman with whom he had a laugh, and the other is that even now, when confronted with his own actions, he makes such a shallow, pretentious attempt at avoiding accountability. It’s too illuminating to be just a throwaway line or an earnest distillation of Baumbach’s own opinion regarding Charlie’s infidelity — this is Charlie’s opinion, not his director’s. He’s the one who seems big and generous and humble at the outset: He doesn’t have the big house, the lovable L.A. family, the fancy lawyer. But this is, really, what he thinks of this divorce: If he made mistakes in his marriage, maybe he was entitled to them. What’s more: Shouldn’t his wife pity him for not making a few more? He was on the cover of Time Out New York!
“Do you love her?” Nicole asks. (The real problem with the scene is that she, while not accepting Charlie’s proclamation, drops it. If this script were written by me or any woman I know, Nicole would’ve rolled her eyes, murmured “fuck off,” and stomped out.) Obviously Charlie doesn’t love her, because by now we’ve met the woman Charlie had an affair with, and she sucks. She’s simply interested and available and willing to spend a few hours in the library looking for obscure books to please him. It’s boring.
But this line — I wish I could make a citizen’s arrest; it owns me now. Marriage Story has become the most fun movie to talk about because people love it or hate it for so many different reasons, in so many different ways. (We all love Parasite, we all love Little Women, our knives are out, our gems are cut, and no one wants to live in a world where Joker wins Best Picture.) I’m mostly blasé on Charlie and Nicole and their separation, but imagine opening your mouth, twisting your lips, and saying such a thing. It’s nuts! “You shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her!” It’s tragic. It’s nuts. It is — and I mean this very sincerely — a laugh! I’m laughing.