Marriage Story (2019)
Marriage Story (2019)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 16 min.

Release Date: December 6th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Noah Baumbach Actors: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Wallace Shawn, Kyle Bornheimer, Azhy Robertson

 


 

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here are a lot of reasons that Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is a generous person and a great mother. But, of course, she also has a number of idiosyncrasies and habits that can try the patience. She currently appears on the stage, starring in various productions in New York (having formerly been a fledgling L.A. actress), working alongside her director husband Charlie (Adam Driver) – a man with an equivalent arsenal of lovable qualities and annoying quirks (“He cries easily in movies”). And he’s a tremendous father as well.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s introductions for the married couple are light and fun and flirty, occasionally centering around their high-strung 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), generally remaining positive and upbeat. And yet, there’s an unconquerable schism in their relationship, lending to discussions of divorce. Trips to a mediator prove futile; even though Nicole is set on the separation, the two haven’t agreed to all the details. And divorces can be messy. “We’ll figure it out. We want the same things.”

“I wanna stay friends.” Part of the problem concerns their plans for the future: Charlie is taking his latest theater production to Broadway, while Nicole is going back to California to film a pilot for a television show. Once she’s back in West Hollywood, staying with her nagging mother (Julie Hagerty), things get a little more unmanageable. And when she considers hiring renowned, heavy-hitting lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), the possibility for hostilities increases.

Although the subject of divorce is weighty, the initial approach is airy and comical; many of the surrounding environments, supporting roles, and everyday activities are silly, highlighting the absurdities of creative people and creative industries. Friends and relatives are similarly exaggerated and cartoonish, providing humorous interludes. But soon there are pangs of severity; Nicole often can’t hold back tears. For her, it’s not as simple as having fallen out of love. And, understandably, she’s concerned about what’s fair for their boy. Plus, her family – including sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) – is still quite fond of Charlie; and Charlie is still in moderate denial of the whole situation.

“I think it’s all pretty straightforward.” Much of the film is a confessional, with each lead spilling the details of their union to other characters (and the audience itself), from the cute beginnings to the struggles of the middle (ranging from careers to having a child) to the shattered endings. And it feels quite raw and real, thanks to Johansson and Driver giving exceptional, heartfelt, sometimes explosive, always genuine performances. Like a play, dialogue sounds off-the-cuff and improvised (save for the auxiliary personas, including an expensive lawyer [Ray Liotta] and his lackey [Kyle Bornheimer], whose appearances once again revert to over-the-top comedy) yet earnest and believable. In time, primarily when it comes to Henry and his custody, the amicable separation turns complicated and antagonistic; when there’s something to lose – financially and with familial relationships – the teeth come out, creating opportunities for Johansson and Driver to dive into passionate debates.

Adding to the tragic poignancy of the ordeal is classical, romantic music that wafts through various scenes, as well as cinematography that lingers over shoulders and idles on faces and expressions – especially those betraying tenderness. Yet despite the pain and the bitterness, there are superb, little, humorous touches, such as an office with no coffee and only donut crumbs, or the entire performance by Alan Alda as an uncommonly sensitive lawyer, or a hilariously mousy (and uncomfortably invasive) evaluator. It’s a comprehensive, penetrative, thought-provoking, terribly emotional character study and relationship (or the deterioration of a relationship) exploration in the vein of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “Manchester by the Sea,” but with a modern eye for how society tends to view parentage and divorce. Brilliantly, there are also plenty of nonsensical sequences to break up the more somber moments (which are the heart of the picture but also the most difficult to watch). By the end, “Marriage Story” proves itself to be a sensational blend of laughs, tears, love, and hope.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10