By Jason Seyler
November 11, 2019
Marriage Story opens with a montage accompanied by voice-over from Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) as they list the reasons why they love one another. It is a touching beginning filled with laughs and, for anyone who has been in a serious relationship, much relatability. But, as the scene suddenly ends it becomes apparent that they are reading their own required writing as they sit down with a divorce mediator. The moment has impact as the audience becomes aware the last five minutes are now merely a memory, and not a reflection of how things are going to move forward. As the film continues, it dives into how Nicole and Charlie found themselves at divorce. Nicole wants to pursue her acting career in Los Angeles, while Charlie is a theater director in New York. Their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), is caught in the middle as both parents want to share custody, but the distance makes it impossible to do so.
The film is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, and Baumbach has reportedly said his inspiration for the film was drawn from his own divorce. That is evident throughout in this atypical Hollywood love story. There is not a question of whether Nicole and Charlie will reconcile and work things out; their divorce is inevitable. The film centers around whether or not they will survive it. Wisely, Baumbach doesn’t pit the audience against either lead character, despite Nicole being more proactive in the divorce while Charlie is doing his best to accept where his life is heading. Nicole seeks out a lawyer (played by Laura Dern), who is more aggressive in the custody battle than Nicole would like to be. Charlie is eventually forced to do the same, and the film captures how ugly divorce can be– bringing out the worst in people even when they would like to be as amicable as possible.
That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t funny. In fact, it’s very funny. Humor is used effectively throughout the film without undercutting any dramatic moments. A scene in which Nicole’s sister (Merritt Wever) serves divorce papers to Charlie is hilarious. There is a discussion of how and when the papers should be handed to him that feels real while also generating a lot of laughter. Baumbach makes use of the awkwardness throughout the film to create comedy, whether it’s for the audience or the characters. Nicole and Charlie are struggling throughout the film, but there is often laughter and smiling in their scenes together. Though they are getting divorced, it is easy to recognize that these two characters were once in love.
Along with strong writing, the performances from the leads are exceptional, and it may be a career best for both Johansson and Driver. Johansson delicately brings layers to Nicole, being firm in her actions while also being sympathetic. In one scene specifically, Nicole is telling her lawyer the story of how she and Charlie met. Baumbach has the camera follow Nicole for an extended period of time and Johansson sells every minute of it, transitioning between smiling, laughing, and crying. Moments like these are why Marriage Story succeeds so well. Every shot and word of dialogue contains an honesty that makes everything on screen believable.
Driver is fantastic, bringing a level of desperation to his performance as he wants to keep his son in his life, even if that means giving up his career in New York. Driver is so good at keeping Charlie collected throughout the film that when his eventual breakdown happens it is heartbreaking. In many ways, Charlie is very much the film’s protagonist reacting to Nicole’s actions, and Driver’s performance adds emotion to every scene he is in. The supporting cast is solid as well, with Laura Dern as Nicole’s ruthless lawyer, and Ray Liotta and Alan Alda in smaller roles as the different lawyers that Charlie meets with.
Marriage Story is getting a limited release in theaters, and then hitting Netflix on December 6. From the opening montage filled with romance and humor to its closing tear-jerking final moments (all accompanied by a delightful score from Randy Newman), the film’s impact is unavoidable whether seeing it on the big screen or at home. Like life itself, it is unflinching and real, while bringing laughter and tears. It also may be the best film this year. This is not to be missed.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5