Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever
Rated R| Minutes: 136
Release Date: November 8, 2019 (Limited Theaters)| December 6, 2019 (Netflix)
Writer and director Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story is an emotionally crushing, yet very compassionate depiction of a collapsing marriage between two people and the irony of the realization that they must come together in order for them to go their separate ways. It also may be one of Baumbach’s greatest pieces of work.
Films about divorce rarely explore the heartbreak of two people who could not make it work with such honesty. But with Marriage Story, it feels raw and unnerving. The film moves like a stage play with its characters (played brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) pouring out their souls for all of us to see as they go through one of the most difficult points in their lives.
The irony of Marriage Story starts off with Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) monologuing about what they love about each other. It’s through these intimate details that we start to see what every day was like between the two before they fell out of love.
We see how Nicole is brave and playful, inexplicably brewing a cup of tea that she will never drink or opening a jar of pickles whenever Charlie is unable to. Then we see Charlie, who is self-sufficient, cries during movies, is overly competitive, and loves the things you are supposed to hate about being a dad. Though they are very open about what they love about the other through their words, it’s evident that their marriage is on a path towards divorce, and they must decide the custody of their child, Henry.
Marriage Story often moves like a stage play, with some of the bigger moments taking place in one room and with very few people. In one instance, the camera lingers its attention on Johansson, as she bares her soul and opens up about the ups and downs of her relationship with her divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), who can be best described as a calm and comforting yet cold-hearted, ruthless, and blood-thirsty shark who is willing to let the opposing side bleed out before she takes whatever is left as an added bonus.
In another scene, Charlie and Nicole argue about how they’ve gotten to the point of using lawyers when they’ve agreed not to. And Driver gets his own chance to shine as he frantically tries to make sure he leaves a good impression on a social worker who is evaluating his parenting.
The camera work is also amazing, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan having the lens focus on the characters just long enough to see Charlie and Nicole bare their souls and open up to others about how the divorce is affecting them. It never goes beyond its simplistic scope. Nor is there any need to. It works because it makes full use of limited space and never drawing any attention to anyone else but Charlie and Nicole. There is never a moment where Charlie and Nicole are not in the scene. This is their story to tell. And Randy Newman‘s music really brings everything together nicely.
Marriage Story never puts the blame on anyone. Although, one could argue that Charlie is fighting an uphill battle considering that he faces some of the bigger challenges in terms of finding a lawyer, holding down a steady job as a playwright, finding a suitable residence, and flying from one end of the coast to the opposite so that he can spend time with Henry. He has a much harder time finding legal representations considering that he is under a greater financial strain. His first lawyer (Alan Alda) is a bit out of touch and spends a lot more of his time trying to tell stories or jokes that seem to have no punchline – and lawyer’s fees aren’t cheap by the way.
Though Charlie’s second lawyer (Ray Liotta) is a no-bullshit kind of guy, he is very forward. That is not to say that Nicole has had it easy, considering that she is arguing that she has constantly lived in Charlie’s shadow and has been rebuffed by him about a career change many times. But the heart of this film is not who is at fault; it’s watching a marriage come to an end, and all the emotional pain and suffering it is causing them.
It’s almost difficult to watch as these two begin to part ways and figure out how to work out the custody. Often times, lapses in judgment will be used against one another in order to build their case that they are a more fit parent. There are a few moments of humor that can alleviate all of the heavy emotional tolls that come with divorce. However, Baumbach takes a very honest approach to the film. These two are not getting back together. There is no happy ending for them. And you can see that in the space that Baumbach deliberately creates between two leads. Charlie and Nicole can often be seen separated by walls or their own child, or on opposing sides. All this does is reinforce the notion of their separation.
Marriage Story isn’t exactly a tear-jerking experience, but it an unconventional love story that is begging to be watched. The film has a rich emotional depth to it because it explores the dissolution of a marriage between two people with authenticity. Driver and Johansson are in top form in what is simply one of Baumbach’s best films to date. It’s incredible how much the two can do with such a focused story.
Because of how the film moves and is staged, it allows the audience to connect to Charlie and Nicole on a deeper level, one on which we get to see how the divorce takes an emotional toll on them. And in the end, we get a film that captures the raw emotions of two people suffering through one of the most difficult times in their lives and how they must work out their differences in order to come together. Even if that task requires them to remember what they loved about each other.