2019, R, 136 mins.
Scarlett Johansson as Nicole / Adam Driver as Charlie / Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw / Merritt Wever as Cassie / Mark O'Brien as Carter / Azhy Robertson as Henry / Brooke Bloom as Mary Ann / Julie Hagerty as Sandra / Amir Talai as Amir
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
15 years ago writer/director Noah Baumbach made a huge splash with THE
SQUID AND THE WHALE, a deeply personal drama that chronicled the
divorce of a couple from the children's prerogative (which, no doubt,
stemmed from his own experiences being a child of divorce himself).
His latest endeavor, the Netflix produced MARRIAGE STORY, is yet
another divorce centric drama, but this time coming largely from the
perspective of the husband and wife.
It's a work no less personal for the filmmaker (he found himself
divorced from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013), but the viewpoint of
the piece is fundamentally different.
Its dissection of the most toxic and unbearable elements of a
freefalling relationship reminded me considerably of
BLUE VALENTINE, although I didn't
feel that MARRIAGE STORY dramatically cut anywhere near as deep.
Still, Baumbach's film is staggeringly well acted, and as an embarrassment
of performance riches it has few rivals in 2019.
STORY opens in superb fashion showcasing the film's couple in question -
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver)
- working on their respective marriage therapy homework, which
requires them to make a list of each other's best traits.
When it comes time to unveil their lists to their therapist, Nicole
gets cold feet and declines, feeling that the sessions are a waste of time
for what she considers to be a dead relationship.
The majority of the remaining 136 minute running time comes in the
form of a series of flashbacks that chronicles how this once happily married
couple found their union capsizing towards a very heated divorce and the
harsh legal battle to come over custody of their young son.
Both seem to have their respective reasons for wanting to part:
Charlie is an aspiring and modestly successful New York play director that
doesn't want to relocate just when his career is about to finally take
off, whereas Nicole gave up her career as an actress to support Charlie's
work, but now has a chance to jump-start her own performance career with a
lucrative TV gig that's based in L.A..
Both realize that their marriage is on the rocks as a result of
this, and they both mutually decide to find a way to work as a team to end
everything amicably. Unfortunately,
when both decide to lawyer up that's when the gloves come off and the
darker underbelly of their grievances with one another start to get openly
and Charlie are, for the most part, good people that initially try to move
forward with as little tension as possible.
This changes with Nicole's hiring of Nora Fanshaw (the solid Laura
Dern), who outwardly seems cordial, but inside is a ruthlessly determined
lawyer that will stop at nothing to ensure her client wins at all costs
and secures a large payout.
Charlie begins a bit more passive aggressively on the legal front
and secures the services of Bert Spitz (a splendidly low key Alan Alda),
who comes off more as a kindly old grandfather as opposed to a
ruthlessly cunning attorney.
Realizing that he has zero chance in hell of winning with Bert,
Charlie drops him and hires go-for-the-jugular and cutthroat lawyer (Ray
Liotta) to help mount a counter offensive against his wife. It's during
these sections of the film where all of the dirty past laundry of Charlie
and Nicole are thrown on the table, exposed to all during their protracted
divorce case, which inevitably becomes a daily horror show for them.
dynamic between this couple is fairly fascinating throughout MARRIAGE
STORY, especially for how Baumbach shows them at their most ideal highs,
which makes the ensuing legal battlefront involving them all the more
difficult for the audience to endure.
Nicole and Charlie are not squeaky clean people, though:
She's grappling with trying to find some occupational autonomy
apart from Charlie's on-stage career in New York and he's a sometimes
monopolizing control freak that can't bring himself to understand why his
wife wants to leave the Big Apple for an independent career across the
country on a platform that he feels is beneath her talents.
I admired the deeply democratic approach that Baumbach takes with
his story, resisting the urge to take any concrete side with this couple.
Like his best previous films, MARRIAGE STORY is a wonderfully
observant drama that captures its characters at their best and worst,
which allows individual moments between them to have such potent sadness
and pathos. More crucially,
Baumbach genuinely tries to psychologically understand what makes Nicole
and Charlie tick, which further allows viewers to generate a persuasive
understand how to once trusted union dissolves so poorly and hurtfully.
what MARRIAGE STORY is really about: It works at its strongest when
it's an intimately focused work that chronicles the once happy lives of
these characters while later showing how dehumnanzingly arduous the whole
divorce process can be for good people.
That's every separated couple's nightmare: being dragged through
the mud of an insanely costly courtroom battle with their sanity - and
custody of their child - being held in the balance, and all while facing
financial implosion (and the lawyer themselves don't care, per se, about
the emotional well being of their clients...they just want to crush their
opponents with extreme measures). I
think the finest dramas about warts and all portrayals of marriages in peril
have no specific heroes or villains, only victims.
The central and ironic truth about divorce court is that there's
little euphoric high to be had in winning, especially when it emotionally
costs so very much and essentially ruins once tightly knit families.
as mentioned, it's the heartbreakingly effective performances by Johansson
and Driver - arguably the most bravura acting pairing of the year - that
allows for MARRIAGE STORY to frequently pack such a dramatic wallop.
Johansson in particular has a very tricky task of relaying her
character as one that loves Charlie, but can no longer stand his claustrophobic
hold he places on her when it comes to fully realizing her own career
happiness and goals. The
actress has arguably never been so achingly honest in a film.
Driver perhaps has the most difficult thespian challenge in the
film, especially considering that he has to evoke a complex and vulnerable
man that's also a self-serving egotist.
In a lesser actor's hands Charlie would have been reprehensible,
but Driver's tour de force work here paints this man in multiple wounded
layers, finding the flawed humanity in someone that's in way over his head
and has no idea what to do next.
admired the absolute dedication that Driver and Johansson brought to the
table here, and their work here is undeniably Oscar caliber, but one aspect
of MARRIAGE STORY that ironically pushed me away at a distance just when
the performances were drawing me in was the fact that Nicole and Charlie
are, for the most part, entitled and privileged people.
That, and they seem equally egotistical
in their respective needs. Their marriage trauma absolutely
felt palpable and, for many in the audience, chillingly relatable.
But I nevertheless found it somewhat hard to actually care about
this couple's problems, both of whom are self-serving on an
occupational level and, deep down, have their son being essentially used
as a legal pawn. This, no doubt, is certainly cuts to the truth of many
divorce proceedings, to be sure, but a large part of my emotional buy-in
for these characters became a bit more difficult as the narrative
progressed. I drew a
comparison of this film with BLUE VALENTINE, which I think is apt.
Cianfrance's film came off like a devastatingly authentic and
painfully raw documentary about the lives of its down on their luck and
blue collar husband and wife. By comparison, MARRIAGE STORY sometimes dramatically struck
me like a meticulously rehearsed and scripted play, with its performers
hitting their cues with pin point accuracy.
Johansson and Driver are forces of nature here, and they should be
applauded for their work, but they also occupy a few too many scenes that
are artificially melodramatic and don't have a sweeping veracity about
Maybe that's my ultimate issue with MARRIAGE STORY that I think holds it back from achieving true greatness: It's like a play that's trying to be shoehorned into a movie. Baumbach obviously, as mentioned, comes from a very personal place with films like this and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (he has uniquely lived through divorce as both a child and parent and has now made films from both viewpoints) and the universality of the themes presented in MARRIAGE STORY are approached with a compassion for the characters and an understanding of the repellent ugliness of the legal side of divorce cases. I was greatly taken in with the sizable presence that Johansson and Driver collectively have here in quarterbacking the individual moments of power, but Baumbach's film isn't as gut-punchingly visceral as other aforementioned dramas about the implosion of a marriage. It's still a level headed cautionary parable about the horrors of a broken marital union that's worth investing in, just not indicative of the finest pieces from the acclaimed director's superlative resume.