Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019) – Full Original – Relationship Tragicomedy
Married couple Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have decided to split up and are hoping it can be done amicably and without too much disruption for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). This proves to be very naïve on their part, however, as their divorce is complicated by a bicoastal divide – Nicole is a Los Angeles native who wants to move home to pursue a TV career; Charlie meanwhile lives and works in New York City and wants to stay there – and a slew of unresolved grievances between them. Inevitably lawyers get involved things get ugly before they ultimately come to terms with what they have lost and gained through their relationship and its ending.
As was the case with Noah Baumbach’s last Netflix movie The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story tells what is at first glance a fairly familiar story. A once happy couple finds out that divorce is hell and that even those with the best intentions will end up doing and saying horrible things about their former partner. But even more so than was the case with the superb TMS, Baumbach and his cast find ways to elevate that material beyond seeming cliché to something uniquely powerful and moving.
As I am writing this review, the Golden Globe nominations are being announced, kicking off Oscar season 2020, and adulation is rightfully being heaped upon Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson for their performances. Seldom have I agreed more with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and I am sure many others will do so by the end of the season. Put simply, these are two of their generation’s greatest actors giving vintage performances: raging at times, passive aggressive at others; sometimes clueless and lost, sometimes confident and self-assured. In other words, they are consummately human performances in which we see ourselves as we are, sometimes in our worst moments and sometimes in moments of pure magic. Adam Driver’s musical number, for example, just has to be seen to be believed, flat out one of the greatest moments in contemporary cinema.
Baumbach’s style is subtle enough to allow this acting to shine in a way that feels natural and unforced. But then the film also provides moments of showstopping acting with long-take close-ups featuring Johansson in particular that are as bold and vituoso as the performance contained in them. In moments such as these, Baumbach is ever the pastiche artist, channeling Ingmar Bergman in a multilayered way that is thematic and stylistic.
Citing Bergman and talking about the harrowing breakdown of a marriage might make you think Marriage Story is going to be a downer, but that is far from the case. Sure it is grim at times and generally lump-in-your-throat bittersweet at its climactic moments, but this movie is also very funny at times, if not outright hysterical.
Observational humor runs through the movie from the very beginning as we get a list of each partner’s comic foibles (more than one of which drew a look over from my own partner), but the film gets much funnier than this at times. There are two particularly side-splitting scenes that show Driver and Johansson (as well as the supporting cast) to be comic geniuses on top of everything else. One of these involves Nicole’s attempts to serve divorce papers to Charlie, with the assistance of her hapless sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) and another involves a pocket knife and which turns an already comically awkward visit from a court-appointed social worker into total farce.
No account of the film’s humor, nor any review of the film’s acting would be complete without mentioning the scene-stealing turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as divorce attorneys. Of these, Dern is perhaps the most memorable, but I found her performance to be a little too similar to her character in Big Little Lies to say that it is particularly groundbreaking, but it is very entertaining to be sure. Liotta and Alda show more range in their turns as, respectively, Charlie’s attack dog and the gentle pussy cat lawyers. Liotta is a riot in his role as is Alda, but Alda also brings a world-weary wisdom to his character that is also very moving. His occasionally shaking hand also adds a sense of vulnerability that complements the character beautifully, whether it’s intentional or not.
In short, Marriage Story is a real gem of a film. Baumbach has hit a personal high here that I haven’t seen since The Squid and the Whale and even surpasses that film. I also thought very highly of TMS and Frances Ha, but Marriage Story is just at another level.
Noah Baumbach also wrote and directed The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which was acquired by Netflix as an original film.
Adam Driver also appears in The Meyerowitz Stories.
Merritt Wever has a small but scene-stealing role in this film as Nicole’s sister Cassie. She also stars in two Netflix original mini-series, Godless and Unbelievable.
Producer David Heyman is also producing the series Clickbait for Netflix.
Going through a bitter divorce and fighting over kids is usually something that you go to the movies to get away from and this is thus far from the kind of escapism that characterizes most commercial cinema. Even though other studios were supposedly interested in financing the project (including rival streamer Amazon), this would always have been a tough sell for mainstream audiences.