When I saw Marriage Story a few weeks ago, I was more than a little bit surprised. Director Noah Baumbach has made a series of great films, from Kicking and Screaming to The Squid and the Whale, and I had every expectation I would enjoy his latest. I did. What I didn’t expect was that I would cry so hard, particularly during the film’s thematic centerpiece: a blowout argument between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a scene that begins with some light tension and devolves into a screaming match about their broken relationship and Charlie punching a hole in the wall of his barren Los Angeles apartment. I’ve been on both sides of that sort of argument before, and they aren’t fun. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.
Last Friday, Marriage Story arrived on Netflix, and, once again, my expectations were not met. While I anticipated lots of people on Twitter to have opinions about the movie (I had already had good-natured arguments with friends who saw the film before it hit the streaming service, which produced it), I completely did not imagine the internet would spend the weekend turning its most memorable scene—that gut-wrenching fight—into something funny.
But that’s what happened: Somehow, Noah Baumbach is responsible for one of this week’s best memes, as people across Twitter—whether they saw the film or not, or liked the film or not—are now re-contextualizing Charlie and Nicole’s fight into something light and silly. Like last year’s American Chopper Argument meme, it takes a very tense moment and turns it into a tool for lampooning petty bickering. I can’t help but think this wouldn’t have happened if the film wasn’t released immediately on Netflix following its brief Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, if it wasn’t immediately on everyone’s desktop, begging to be screenshot and captioned.
At this point, I’ve lost track of Netflix’s proprietary productions. Like Disney+, for every good thing Netflix makes it also offers loads of mediocre TV shows and original movies. And yet, the streamer can certainly get us to pay attention to its big tent-pole releases—even the so-so ones. Is Stranger Things anything more than what an algorithm tells us we remember from ’80s movies? Probably not. Was last year’s Christmas-adjacent release Bird Box really any good? Not really, but everyone watched it—and talked about it—for a week at least before collectively forgetting it exists.
That’s because it doesn’t matter if a big Netflix release is good. It matters more that people are paying attention and talking about it. That doesn’t make Netflix any different from any other studio or network. But in lieu of ratings, which any other network or studio would easily release, we have memes—which prove, in a roundabout away, that Marriage Story has entered the discourse in a way beyond conversations about how successfully the film balances the perspectives of the male and female protagonists.
Who’s in the right, Charlie or Nicole? That matters a lot less than the abundance of memes now using Charlie and Nicole to poke fun at the daily conversations folks have on the internet. There’s now a new representation for the casual, insignificant arguments people have online—which, of course, seem much heavier than they really are—thanks to the overly emotive performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson now popping up on the TL. These memes reduce the grown-up, adult, uncomfortable fight their characters have to melodrama. They’re now fighting about the most insignificant subjects, from Baby Yoda to the concept of the argument meme itself. And, quite ironically, it’s all from an Oscar-hopeful drama about the divorce of two upper-class creatives—the kind of characters some people on Twitter would ridicule. They’re still being ridiculed, in a way, but also promoted; it feels like an evil scheme on behalf of the Netflix publicity department. It’s not the kind of buzz that guarantees awards, but it certainly puts Marriage Story at the top of Twitter’s trending topics—for a few hours, at least.
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social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/marriage-story-meme