MARRIAGE STORY (directed by Noah Baumbach, 136 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, begins at the tail end of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) union with the pair unsuccessfully attempting divorce mediation. Nicole who once had a successful film career in LA, moved to New York where she fell in love with Charlie. Soon married, the pair worked together in the New York theater scene with Charlie writing/directing and Nicole as his wife, muse and lead, not to mention the mother of their son. A profile in Brooklyn bohemian paradise, or so it would seem. But when Nicole is offered a television pilot in Hollywood, she moves out to La La Land with their son to get some space and soon after decides to file for divorce.
The rest of the film chronicles the dissolution of the marriage of two people who love each other and want to do the right thing, but are slowly drifting apart. Nicole complicates things when she seeks the counseling of a savvy LA divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who is more interested in what she can get her client rather than what Nicole wants. In much the same way that Squid And The Whale was a semi-autobiographical take on his parent’s divorce, Marriage Story was seemingly birthed from his Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The film does not take the easy way out, it does not choose sides nor does it villainize neither Nicole or Charlie. As a result, it’s even more gut-wrenching to watch the slow-motion collapse of their marriage over the course of two hours.
It’s an understatement that Driver and Johansson turn in career best performances here. Driver’s Charlie feels more well-rounded and larger than life as we witness him hitting rock bottom, whereas Johansson turns in a more understated but equally impressive performance that flourishes in small caring moments. It’s those little things that she does in the midst of their increasingly bitter divorce, like tying Charlie’s shoelace or giving him a much-needed haircut, that punctuates the story of two people who still deeply love and care for one another, but just can’t be together anymore.
With each new film, Baumbach seems to inch farther away from indie darling and closer to a household name, and this latest Netflix produced film his most mainstream offering yet. Marriage Story drops Baumbach’s trademark comedic quirkiness and embraces a much more melancholic tone in this raw and intimate character study of two individuals. There’s the distinct ring of truth to the film that feels uncomfortably voyeuristic at times as we witness their descent into bitterness and acrimony, but that discomfort is the price of admission. It’s not an easy watch but breakups like this are never easy on anyone involved, including the audience watching in the theater.