While the illusion of cinema is able to immerse you in other worlds, there are very hard rules when it comes to dialogue and screenplays. A curious example is Marriage Story, the Noah Baumbach independent drama with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The Netflix drama has generated a lot of hype in the buildup to the 2020 award season with a first-rate collection of lead and supporting performances. The film’s screenplay is just as quirky and offbeat as we have come to expect from Baumbach. However, there’s more of a spontaneity to it, attempting to be as off-the-cuff and real as possible.
While audiences have come to understand the unreal language of film when it comes to dialogue, it’s quite surprising to extract yourself from the situation and take more of an objective perspective. When characters talk to each other in a film, each line has been carefully selected. This is to actualise meaning through subtext, generate mood and create the right atmosphere for a scene. When an actor stammers or repeats themselves, these things are very much planned.
Offering up the illusion of realism and spontaneity is quite a difficult task to achieve. In real life, dialogue doesn’t just flow, there are stops and starts, people don’t talk coherently all the time and often there is just a bunch of waffle that is nonsensical and unnecessary. Portraying this would be a bit boring and seem like a waste of time, unless the director was purposefully trying to create a stifling atmosphere.
So to achieve this curious balance, Marriage Story sometimes has a zigzagging feel to the dialogue. Allowing the characters to jump from one thought to the next, sometimes quite haphazardly gives the impression that the lines are happening by association and in real time. This off-the-cuff style is difficult to calibrate yet Baumbach is able to effectively use it to feign a sense of intimacy and realism. Unfinished jokes, honest remarks, regrettable utterances and even awkward conversations, he injects the screenplay with a sense of authenticity, allowing the humour to develop quite naturally and having ideas arise sporadically almost like popcorn.
Aided by strong performances, from actors who also know how to infer meaning through the tone of their voices, they hit the right notes. Without the messiness of real dialogue, the lines are delivered much like any other film, yet convey the emotional shades and general disposition of the characters and their flaws quite delicately. While unusual, this writing style is quite effective and helps give the actors more grounded, fallible and interesting work to wrestle with at the end of the day.