Ray Liotta enters Marriage Story with a price tag: “Here’s the fact, Jack. I charge $950 an hour. Ted is $400,” he says, motioning to his mostly silent associate, who adds verbal footnotes to all his declarations. “If you have a stupid question, you call Ted.” His office is big and sort of brutishly designed; he barks out questions, telling Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) conclusions he doesn’t want to hear.
Charlie thinks he’s having one kind of divorce. As Jay, Liotta brutally — bullishly, sternly — tells him that not only is he having another kind of divorce, but his marriage was different than he remembered too. “You were married here in L.A.? Your son was born out here?” Jay asks. Charlie, maroon little Moleskine in his erudite hands, says yes to both. “So you got married here, your kid was born here, and she” — his soon-to-be-ex, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) — “served you here?” Charlie is, at turns, incredulous and offended. Other people might have bad divorces or ugly divorces; his and Nicole’s, he imagined, would be bespoke. (In the scene before he meets Jay, he earnestly assumed he would spend the night at his ex-mother-in-law’s house, as he did on every other visit.) That all ends once he sits under the harsh overhead light of Jay’s office. Charlie wants to go back to New York, he cries out, and so does his son! Jay all but holds up his hand, telling him to shut it: “No, don’t quote your kid,” he frowns. “He’s just telling you what you want to hear. And trust me, he’s telling her the opposite.”
If I had my way, Marriage Story would be only about the lawyers. The movie means to show how impersonal divorce is, how it’s anti-intimate. Love, marriage, betrayal, neglect, sized down to serif font: “Case #BD 646-058.” Liotta and Laura Dern, as Nicole’s lawyer, Nora, do their jobs a little too well, making the actual inner details of whatever Charlie and Nicole’s whole deal was seem almost like a long afterthought. Dern won the Oscar, of course, but the late Liotta’s performance is so ruthless, tightly wound but a little unhinged. He’s not a villain, just a predator smelling blood. When introduced, Charlie dismisses him as a bad guy, but why? Because he’s direct? He said Nora was going to paint Charlie as the neglectful, ambitious father, and that’s exactly what she did.
The scene in Jay’s office is the movie’s first really ugly moment: Charlie is unreliable, Nicole is unreliable, and the kid? Even the kid is unreliable. Jay’s office isn’t light and airy and inviting; it’s a rich bachelor’s kind of put together, furnished by ego and leather and whatever just kind of seemed fine in the moment. Marriage is a union between two people; divorce is deal-making between a half-dozen. The shark gray of Jay’s suit, the way he talks about “money” and “assets” instead of art and family. How can Charlie hire this guy, who isn’t even embarrassed he didn’t remember his kid’s name? The scene becomes a really delicious battle of two stubborn wills: Charlie, who keeps insisting this can be easy if they let it, versus Jay, who keeps announcing it won’t be. Driver’s intensity as an actor is emotional (he does rage well, and grief), while Liotta’s is frank and intimidating. “Listen, if we start from a place of reasonable, and they start from a place of crazy,” Jay growls, “when we settle, we’ll be somewhere between reasonable and crazy.” Cue Ted from the corner: “Which is still crazy.”
So much of Marriage Story is weirdly, incongruously quotable, lines no one would ever say but lines I so badly want to say. The script is full of clever asides, sly observations, and bitter truths that come out mangled, selfish, cruelly (and sometimes funnily) inexact (“You shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her!” Charlie cries out to Nicole. He’s trying to make a case for a stupid affair, but the very act of justifying it is the biggest joke.) Charlie and Nicole talk one way; their lawyers talk another. It’s not as simple as Driver being the artist and Liotta being his barking id: Both lawyers say what’s unsavory, what’s unthinkable, what’s unspeakable — until they’re in front of the judge, doing what they get paid $950 an hour to do.
Charlie hires and fires a nice lawyer and buys back the piranha. (“I needed my own asshole,” he justifies to his wife afterward.) The movie’s courtroom scene, in which Liotta and Dern face off, is entirely their own. “A little history,” Jay begins. “Ten years ago, Charlie takes a risk when he first hires Nicole as an actress in his play in New York City. He’s a well-regarded up-and-coming director of the avant-garde. And she’s known as the girl in that college sex movie who takes her top off.”
The way that first phrase sticks in my brain! The way I still think about it all these years later: “a well-regarded up-and-coming director of the avant-garde.” Liotta is almost pious in the line reading: “director of the avant-garde.” It’s as if Jay has copied-and-pasted the phrase from the lede of whatever Time Out issue Charlie was on the cover of. This is the gravelly voice-over of Henry Hill speaking dutifully about downtown theater! I laugh every time. A few scenes earlier, Jay basically shrugged when Charlie mentioned he’d directed plays Off Broadway. But now, in front of a judge, it’s a precious artistic vocation — with material assets that should be protected from Nora’s manicured clutches. (His chiding of Nicole is such a funny, gross dismissal but not all that different from what Charlie himself might say if he’s angry enough.)
Marriage Story’s lawyers are so vibrantly rendered in this scene. They’re complementary, not easy opposites: Nicole has the lawyer with the nice shoes and Architectural Digest office, the one she’ll stay friendly with and invite over for dinner. She chose Laura Dern, the only good nepotism baby! Liotta spent his career bouncing around the courthouse, playing a lot of criminals and then playing a lot of cops. He knows Charlie does hate him and will hate him. Nora’s vocabulary includes slut-shaming, and she says genius was an “intangible asset built during the marriage.” Jay speaks in slow, measured tones and stands up to point emphatically, sits down seething. (And it’s not that she’s blue blood but he’s blue collar; he invites her to some Stand Up to Cancer event featuring John Legend on the way into the courtroom.) Nora pulls technicalities and details to make her case; Jay makes his with binaries and sheer force of will alone. In between arguing with Nora, steam all but comes out of his ears when he learns that his “director of the avant-garde” deposited MacArthur “genius” grant money into the couple’s joint account and wrongly assumed the rental-car company would buckle in Henry’s car seat.
A lot of Liotta performances operate on the edge; it could go either way with this guy. He was an everyman in Goodfellas who adjusted his posture, his brightness, his deference or defenses to the moment. He could be ravenous or resigned, charming or menacing — it just depended on who there was to impress and what was on offer. He was Something Wild’s gleeful psycho. But he’s as intense in that Marriage Story courtroom as he is shoving a gun in a guy’s mouth in something else. All on the behalf of a director of the avant-garde.
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