Marriage Story is a Netflix original film written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected), and tells the story of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a director/actress couple split between New York and Los Angeles, as they prepare to separate from their marriage, and are in the process of finalizing their eventual divorce. As the proceedings play out, lawyers neither of them thought they would use are brought in, their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) is torn between two homes even as his parents attempt to make him feel that he still has one family, in-laws iron out their own opinions of each party, and the two main characters in question try to come to a decent solution that works for Henry whilst confronting the fact that even in the demise of their coupling, they will always love each other in their own ways. As the dissolution of their marriage comes increasingly closer, the veil is pulled back on who these characters are, why they ever fell in love in the first place, and what in particular (if it is just one thing) has now caused them to grow, and wish to be, apart. The film also stars Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Merritt Wever, and Wallace Shawn.
Netflix is playing hard-ball this year when it comes to awards season; between this, The Irishman, The Two Popes, and Dolemite is My Name (which I, unfortunately, have not watched yet), they’re racking up some serious Oscar nomination possibilities, and that’s not even counting any of the documentaries or animated films they’ve been putting out all year long. Their biggest push, though (apart from The Irishman) is Marriage Story, which has picked up buzz from any number of festivals and press screenings, largely centered around the performances of Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern. Initially, I was quite sad when it seemed like I might not get to see Marriage Story before it went officially went wide on Netflix on December 6th, but as luck would have it, a local theater was playing it, and I got to actually go and watch it in a theater (which is always the best way to watch any movie). I walked in expecting to see great performances feeding from a really sharp script, and I got all that, but I also got so much more out of this film than I ever could have been expecting.
Marriage Story is one of the most quietly devastating films of the year, yet also one of the most tender and endearing when it comes to the delicacy of its characters. Both Charlie and Nicole want to separate, but despite some pretty heated arguments at a few points through the film, neither one of them hates the other, or wants the other to suffer during the lead-up to the divorce, especially with them both figuring out who will eventually get custody of their son and exactly how much of that custody will be awarded to each party. This is right about where I start heaping praise upon Noah Baumbach’s script and direction; characters like this, a story like this, would not work in the slightest without a great script, and Baumbach delivers like a new pizza delivery driver desperate to impress.
He doesn’t speed through anything, and in fact, some sections of the film felt a little drawn out, but Baumbach’s script takes such a careful approach to its subjects that we the audience almost feel bad for taking part in the viewing, as if these people on screen don’t have enough to deal with right now. He’s great at turning on the waterworks when called for, and making us root for each party in the divorce to get the best deal they can get without making the audience choose a side between them at all or vilifying/lionizing either one. Each time Charlie and Nicole are on screen, and especially when Henry is on screen with either one or both of them, the audience can feel that they used to have a life together, and that some small part of each of them wants to hold onto that life, practically grasping for it even though the two characters’ minds know that that’s probably not the best idea. Baumbach’s script is a high-wire act of re-contextualizing what it can sometimes mean to love someone even when you know they’re bad for you as an individual.
But for any of this to work as well as it does, you need great performers, especially if you’re going to be marketing this one mainly as a performance vehicle for its two leads; lucky for us, everyone in this movie is game to give their absolute all, particularly Driver and Johansson. If I were in charge of handing out the Best Actor Oscar, I would probably hand it to Adam Driver right this second. He’s so heartbreakingly good in this film it makes me wonder why no one had given him a script this good yet. I knew he was something special when The Force Awakens hit theaters back in 2015, and with his supporting performance in BlacKkKlansman last year garnering him an Oscar nomination for that film, I’d say this is probably his year to win, though I would also say that without the awards precedent, because he’s really just that good in this movie.
Johansson, too, gets to show everyone why she became such a big deal of an actress in the first place. She and Charlie have an argument in one of their living rooms and their chemistry (non-romantic of course) was off the charts good, largely thanks to Johansson giving Driver so much material to work with simply in the way she moves her eyes or puts different vocal inflection on certain things she says that one might not otherwise consider. Johansson can be a somewhat controversial performer sometimes (and I can’t believe she’s still defending Woody Allen, but that’s beside the point), but here, she really is on totally equal footing with Driver’s character, and the film never asks her to defer to, apologize in “ignorance” of, or otherwise accommodate any man’s perspective or point of view just because they have one – it always has a story-based purpose, which is a surprisingly rare thing in Hollywood when it comes to how most studios would handle a character like this. Both performers are excellent, but their best moments are when they’re on screen together, and they’re definitely both getting nominated come 2020. I mean, how do you not?
The leading performances aren’t the only great ones either; Laura Dern shows up and nearly steals the show from both the leads in the same breath, but Dern is such a capable actress that she knows exactly how much to hold back and exactly how much of that steam to let slip into each scene. Her first conversation with Johansson’s character is such a long scene for only one person (Johansson) to be talking most of the time, but it’s in this scene that Dern is best able to demonstrate how much power she has in her acting muscles, because we don’t see her for a lot of it, and yet we can still feel her there, listening to Nicole’s problems as if they were our own. Not many others are in the film for any long length of time, but Ray Liotta and Alan Alda both as Charlie’s lawyers at different points in the film definitely also stand out, and it’s really good to see them back on the big screen again.
If I had one small gripe with the movie (which is ultimately pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of it all), Baumbach employs a few too many fade-to-blacks (like six of them) during the runtime of the film, and for reasons I can’t articulate very well in a written review, it made the film feel a little cheaper than it probably was to make. This also feeds into the end credits, which aren’t bad, but are overlaid on the backdrop of the film’s ending scene still going on. Many movies have taken this approach before, and it’s worked for them, but for this one, it actually felt like one of the fade-to-blacks might have actually been useful here, especially since the font they apparently chose for this movie’s credits feels so jarring on top of those images. It’s a small nitpick, though, so I don’t think it bothers me as much in practice as it might because the rest of the film is virtually flawless (though the cinematography could have been a bit more interesting).
I knew I could expect something special going into Marriage Story, but I didn’t expect the quiet, subtle devastation that comes from watching something like this unfold between two people who still love each other but know that staying together isn’t possible for them. Noah Baumbach’s film has such a tender heart and love for these characters, and you can feel all of it in their dialogue and the dialogue of those around them. Driver and Johansson deliver knockout performances (Driver in particular), and the delicate walk they take along the road to separation that makes up the film itself is as bittersweet and poignant as anything you’ll see (or have seen) all year.
I’m giving “Marriage Story” a 9.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.