Marriage Story, 2019.
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever, Mark O’Brien, Azhy Robertson, Brooke Bloom, Julie Hagerty, Matthew Shear, Kyle Bornheimer, Mickey Sumner, McKinley Belcher III, Wallace Shawn, and Amir Talai.
Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
As the divorce and battle for custody at the center of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical Marriage Story ramps up in spite, an observer is appointed to study how the parents raise and interact with their child separately. Adam Driver’s Charlie attempts to educate young Henry (Azhy Robertson) on the impending awkward situation, who assumes that it must be a boyfriend of his mother that he doesn’t know about. Charlie continues to explain what’s going happen but stops himself midway to probe his son for information on a potential new lover. It’s one of many, many startlingly authentic tidbits giving away that Noah Baumbach is indeed approaching the story from a personal angle; you just don’t get performances these raw and dialogue this real without coming from a place of dialed-in experience. Marriage Story is so true that watching it is like having wounds reopened.
Either way, viewers are in for a maelstrom of verbal fighting, but those that can relate are going to get something deeper out of this; perhaps a new perspective on their past or present behavior, maybe an understanding of why one’s parents separated and subsequently became so volatile (bitter and competitive lawyers manipulatively transform empty love into heated arguing, merely emptying the pockets out of both clients at the expense of the future of their offspring), and for Noah Baumbach (but not limited to himself), catharsis. The filmmaker is certainly not pulling any punches, portraying himself through Charlie as everything from a self-absorbed entertainment industry workaholic to a gaslighter that, nonetheless, does love his son and is willing to fight like hell for guardianship.
For those unaware, Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole is a stand-in for Noah Baumbach’s ex-wife actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (an early tell is a past clip of the character having done nudity for a raunchy teen comedy, a nod in itself to Fast Times at Ridgemont High), they had a child together in real life, and specific details such as the New York and Los Angeles based locales, for the most part, matchup. The setup is pretty much exactly grounded in truth, although Noah Baumbach is obviously a filmmaker whereas the character of Charlie directs plays.
The narrative is also framed with a pair of letters, written for marriage counseling, professing what they still like about one another, and while Nicole is uncomfortable speaking aloud her scribblings (Charlie is eager to read his but the process doesn’t work unless both individuals are willing to participate), we do get to hear them by way of inner monologues and montage. This is crucial for two reasons, the first being that there are numerous relationship dramas that trip over the first hurdle of actually making viewers believe that the couple was once in love and illustrating what brought them together in the first place. However, the exercise doesn’t cease functionality as mere exposition, coming back into play for a profoundly moving segment.
With that knowledge in hand, it’s impossible not to invest in the ensuing coast-to-coast divorce, both inside and outside the courtroom. Of course, none of it works without Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson acting out the best screenplay of the year with pure conviction. They deliver the best performances of the year, full stop. Early on, there’s a scene where Nicole meets with a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern) that not only encourages the spouse to tell her side of the story and stand up for herself, but also successfully gets in her head to take a healthy divorce (neither of these two wanted lawyers and a legal battle, to begin with) and twist it into a stressful, money-sinking, toxic ordeal that is more about winning for the sake of winning than what’s best for Henry. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson is given roughly 5-7 minutes to recount events in an unbroken shot that follows her around a room and plays around with camera proximity in relation to her tearful facial expressions; it is unreal. Adam Driver matches her every step of the way as a narcissist with empathetic qualities.
While it’s clear that Charlie is the more problematic one of the two, Noah Baumbach doesn’t necessarily take sides. The narrative spends an equal amount of time with each character, in the process allowing us to feel the desire and passion behind each one’s custody claim. It also paints Nicole as a flawed person that didn’t know what she wanted rushing into this relationship and marriage, feeding into Charlie’s success rather than dedicating energy to her own acting career. Attorneys bring up the smallest of flaws of these people in public, which brings forth unnecessary and uncalled for shame (Scarlett Johansson is once again astonishing at subtly conveying this), prompting them to start walking on eggshells going through everyday life. Nicole has a slight drinking problem (naturally, the lawyers blow this out of proportion), but following a really nasty encounter, she asks for a juice box of all choices the next time she visits Charlie and is given drinking options. Again, it’s masterful writing that is achingly accurate with nuances. When the verbal sparring reaches volcanic eruption it’s genuinely painful to witness.
That’s not to say that all of Marriage Story is 2+ hours of bumming its audience out with unbearably real marital shouting and screaming, as it’s also yet another incredibly hilarious feature from Noah Baumbach. The filmmaker continues to be a modern-day master at situational humor, which should be damn near impossible in a story this depressing. Tossing in a number of comedic faces as a supporting cast helps, but the major players are also able to tap into the everyday comedy of errors that come with life. Wallace Shawn stands out as a horny stageplay associate for Charlie, whereas the comedic presence of Ray Liotta is a genius choice for the throat-ripping counterpart attorney to Laura Dern’s ferocious Nora.
Some moviegoers want to escape reality, well here’s one that suffocatingly enriches reality with its perspicacious dysfunctional home analysis. It presents the question as to if true love ever really dies. I don’t have the answer, but my adoration for Marriage Story will forever be eternal. Till death stops Noah Baumbach from crafting delicate works of art, both emotionally arresting and frolicsome. Marriage Story is his most accomplished work to date.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com