Marriage Story movie review: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson are heartbreakingly good in Netflix’s Oscar front-runner
Director - Noah Baumbach
Cast - Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda
Perhaps the only thing more difficult than watching films like Marriage Story is writing about them. Some people avoid watching horror films; others, like Martin Scorsese, might be averse to superhero movies. My personal kryptonite is shaped rather specifically.
I consider it a matter of great pride, and not embarrassment, that in 28 years of existence I have successfully managed to avoid watching Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer. I have also shielded myself against Ingmar Bergman’s miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. And even though I finally succumbed to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the decision to give in wasn’t made easily. And with good reason.
Watch the Marriage Story trailer here
Director Noah Baumbach’s new film, released on Netflix like his last, The Meyerowitz Stories,is utterly heartbreaking. Alternately understated and ham-fisted, Marriage Story easily switches between several genres -- briefly fooling around as a screwball comedy before knocking you over the head with distressing drama.
While it begins, deceptively, like a romantic comedy, with both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters speaking glowingly about each other in a whimsical voiceover, it is soon revealed that they are in the middle of a bitter divorce. Nicole, a former teen film star, wants to move back to Los Angeles with the couple’s eight-year-old son, but Charlie, an up-and-coming theatre director wants to remain in New York.
It wouldn’t be a Baumbach movie without a man-child at the centre of it. The filmmaker has spent his entire career profiling gifted men who are reluctant to grow up. In Marriage Story, Driver plays a version of the same character he has explored in everything from his breakout television show Girls to the Star Wars films — slightly immature, considerably self-involved, but also capable of decency and warmth. This is his fourth film with Baumbach, and the first time the filmmaker has allowed Driver to fully express his formidable range in a lead role. Even though Baumbach’s screenplay goes the extra mile to reveal Charlie’s flaws and perhaps balance our allegiances, Driver’s typically goofy performance makes it very difficult to dislike him.
And despite what people have been saying online, the film certainly paints Johansson’s Nicole as the villain. Not only does she go against their joint agreement to not involve lawyers, she hires the most ruthless person in the business. Played by Laura Dern in a scene-stealing performance, Nora Fanshaw is like the actor’s Big Little Lies character, but with a brain. Charlie, meanwhile, is not only forced to pay a portion of Nora’s fees, but is made to settle for the kindly Bert (Alan Alda), the only person who seems to have an idea of the human toll separations can take on couples.
Over time, as the process unravels, so does Charlie and Nicole’s relationship. Where there once was an intimate and almost wordless understanding of each other, there is now bitterness and resentment, egged on by an almost clinical legal process. The film’s most heartbreaking scenes are the ones in which Nicole inadvertently calls Charlie ‘honey’ in the middle of the most vicious arguments; or when she decides his food order for him during a tense meeting with their lawyers. “I will never stop loving him,” she says in that opening voiceover. But she did.
Nicole is the one who decided to dump him after he failed to express the adequate amount of enthusiasm for a possible acting opportunity. She’s the one who commands her mother, who has an independent equation with Charlie, to not interact with him anymore, despite knowing that Charlie has no relationship with his own parents and is genuinely fond of her family. When he visits them in one scene, he knows exactly where the paper towels are, and which drawer the cutlery is in. Little moments such as this convey reams of information about the characters, whereas lesser filmmakers would’ve had to rely on pages of dialogue.
Baumbach shoots pivotal moments in the film in long, unbroken takes, allowing life to just… unfold. There are no flashy cinematic techniques on display here, save for perhaps a couple of pointed visual metaphors like three bedroom doors closing on Charlie all at once. The actors are allowed to roam free; not at the mercy of traditional set-ups but with palpable confidence. The approach is almost like theatre. The set is a playground that Driver and Johansson can explore, as we watch, transfixed at the truth they are able to tap into, again and again and again. The camera doesn’t confine them to tight spaces, but offers silent support as they amble in and out of rooms; as they walk through frames and stare directly into its depths.
While Baumbach admitted that his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale was a semi-autobiographical telling of his parent’s separation, the director has maintained that Marriage Story isn’t an account of his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was, coincidentally, also a teen movie star. Coincidentally, she also demanded the custody of their child and moved with him to Los Angeles, leaving Baumbach to pursue his passions in New York, and to write Madagascar 3 in part to pay his legal fee.
Regardless of what the truth is, Marriage Story is so authentic that watching it occasionally feels like eavesdropping on a couple in their most vulnerable moments. It is a love story about falling out of love.