Marriage Story, 2019.
Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Merrit Weaver, Wallace Shawn, and Mark O’Brien.
A modern romance chronicling the slow, painful process of separation between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).
Marriage Story begins as a parable of love. It also ends as one. And in-between you have two souls walking the fracture lines created by the burden of divorce, resulting in some of the most affecting and moving relationship beats ever committed to film.
Flip-flopping between moments of unbridled affection and confused hate, Noah Baumbach’s love-story is one imbued with layer-upon-layer of resonance. Whether that’s from recognisible relationship signifiers, happy and sad, or because he paints a marriage at the heart of the movie that the audience initially thinks might just be perfect, before ripping off the band aid.
It’s difficult not to get swept up in the initial fawning over this superficially successful couple. The film opens with Charlie and Nicole each narrating what they love about the other in a fashion that ranges from cute to compassionate. But before you can allow the warm and fuzzies to embrace you in a huge cinematic hug, Marriage Story sets a film-spanning precedent by shifting to hard-focus, revealing that the platitudes are part of an ice-cold separation meeting, in which the two figures depicted in the meet-cute montage, are now warring echoes of the couple you’ve just been getting the feels about. You’d better get used to it, because this is tender, tumultuous, and achingly real stuff that’ll put you through the emotional wringer.
It’s not all fire-and-brimstone histrionics though. There’s nothing remotely soap-opera about this break-up. It’s as much about laughter as it is pain, with Baumbach ensuring that you’re never in doubt that this family unit, despite its seemingly irreparable slide towards an end, of sorts, is and was built on a foundation of love. There are more shades of grey to a four-letter word, and that’s rarely been more beautifully depicted than here.
Instead of scabrous exchanges to fill an award season showreel, the impact can be found in the quietly devastating moments: the once-cherished gift of a trumpet, now confined to the background of a scene, a forgotten relic of happier times, or the way in which during a particularly nasty mediation, in which Charlie and Nicole are solemn spectators to the lawyer’s back-and forth, she orders his food from the menu. It’s all about the minutiae of life, and it’s sublimely recreated.
Marriage Story might not be the masterpiece it is without the two career-best performances at its brittle broken heart. The only thing boring about the film is once again having to heap praise on Adam Driver, who along with the equally stunning Johansson – honest, fallible, shedder of single impactful tears, and has not been this good since Lost in Translation – delivers a final act stand-off sequence that’s requisitely exhausting and so so painful to watch. But in keeping with the film, they both do so much more with the smaller moments: his “he needs to know how much I fought for him”, and her inability to stop calling him “honey” during their exchanges, will hit you in the solar-plexus.
Circling around them are an ensemble of great supporting turns – Airplane‘s Julie Hagerty is a hoot as Nicole’s irrepressible mom, who’s “64 and has a dead gay husband”, while Ray Liotta gets to chew scenery as one of the film’s larger personalities – but it’s Laura Dern who threatens to steal the film. Her no-nonsense abrasiveness is an antidote to the melancholy posturing of our central pairing, and so important in alleviating any indulgence the film might take in their suffering.
Marriage Story is an extraordinary tale of untethering, one that will be revisited and referenced for years to come as a near-faultless example of the craft of filmmaking. Fall in love with it over-and-over again.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt