Movie Review: Marriage Story
Marriage Story is a film about an actress and a director who are married and creative collaborators who are going through a divorce. Their attempts at being civil, without using lawyers, fail and they end up in court to argue the case and divide themselves further while attempting to co-parent their young son. The film stars Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Azhy Robertson, and Julie Hagerty. It is written and directed by Noah Baumbach.
Let me start by saying I often find Noah Baumbach films pretentious, grating, unaccessible, and overwritten to the point of unbelievability, but I loved Marriage Story. The film is very grounded in the two leads. It shifts perspective evenly, never giving either the upper hand, never giving either a clear protagonist/antagonist bent. While our leads are on opposite sides, we are not cheering for one over the other, we're just hoping they get out from under the horrendous juggernaut of family law.
One of the best things Baumbach accomplishes is a fascinating transition between the two perspectives. He will cut quickly between our leads faces and we see them though the other's eyes, briefly. The best of these is when Charlie comes over to fix Nicole's gate and as they conclude this transaction, the two of them are putting a literal barrier between themselves. Their faces betray what their hearts want in the moment, which is to remain in love, to just help each other understand where they're coming from.
This comes to a head in the most intense scene of the film. Nicole and Charlie, sans lawyers, sans Henry, their son, meet at Charlie's apartment and have it out. They share the other's perspective and they stay in it. They stay in the headspace because they know if they don't have the conversation now, their lawyers will continue to misconstrue, to manipulate and weasel any dirt out of the other in the most acrimonious of ways, so they may as well get it out in the open themselves first. They do and it is painful. It's painful to know how we can stab more deeply at those we truly care about then those we purport to hate. We can drive a stake into their chests and keep driving it there until our pain feels a little less. Our leads do this the length of the scene and it's hard to watch, but oh so necessary and spectacular.
That's not to say this film is just a serious downer. There's genuine and uproarious hilarity. With a murder's row of great actors in the supporting cast it's hard not to find the grain of funny within this drama. Julie Hagerty is always perfect as doting, but a little batty moms and Alan Alda has settled into a great older man misunderstanding a situation groove in his late career that is just a delight. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are dynamite as lawyers who are contentious in the court room and friendly in the hall. They're divorce attorneys with teeth and they have some of the best lines of the film.
Yet, this film belongs to its leads and while Scarlett Johansson is as good if not better here than in her supporting role in JoJo Rabbit, Adam Driver really shines beyond anything I've seen him in before. He has his usual deadpan delivery of certain lines and keeps his acerbic wit tuned to a perfect level, but I loved his vulnerability. He's such a large presence that to see him lose himself, to break down in tears after a shouting match or to lose his way when he thinks he's losing his case, it's uncanny and beautiful and it makes me hope he can take on more roles like this in the future. There's a real beauty in his vulnerability.
I wish I had seen this film in a theater. I wish I could have been there in the dark with all the distractions of other people because I'm fallible when I watch something at home. I often get up and get a snack, take a pee break, get roped into a conversation or any number of things and this film deserves my and your full attention. It is the best kind of adult drama. Marriage Story is well written, impeccably crafted and stunningly acted. It started streaming on Netflix today and if you have a subscription (or use a friend/family member's password) you should start this film and get lost in it for a while.