I was lucky enough to grow up my whole adolescence with both parents in my life and happily married. I can only imagine what it was like for children of divorce to experience this film.
This divorce dramedy originally premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Following an extremely lengthy run on the festival circuit, it began a month-long theatrical engagement in specialty theaters around the world on November 6th, 2019, where it grossed over $2.3 million against an $18 million production budget. It then landed on the streaming service Netflix on December 6th to high anticipation from various cinephiles. It currently stands as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and has been selected or nominated for many year-end accolades.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the idea originally came to him while in post-production on his previous film, The Meyerowitz Stories. The story was partially inspired by his tumultuous real-life divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who apparently responded very positively to the finished product. He discussed the concepts and characters with the two main leads long before anything was written down in order to better develop their respective characters. And as a testament to the film’s unbiased nature, Leigh apparently really liked the film after watching it.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, an acclaimed stress and theater director based in New York. At the beginning of the film, they decide to get a divorce and Nicole moves to L.A. to film a T.V. series. While they initially agree to split as amicably as possible, they hire divorce lawyers Nora Fanshaw and Bert Spitz, played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda, respectively. From there, it turns into a harsh, coast-to-coast battle not just for custody of their young son Henry but also for their own personal agency.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to watch a handful of Baumbach’s features across different platforms. The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) really show that he has a style of realism uncommon in many movies. He has also proven to bring out earnest, understated performances from some big name actors in the industry and bring them down to a naturalistic level.
When I heard about the plans he had for his newest film, and the second one under Netflix, I got ecstatic with the cast he was working with. And the news that it would be the streaming service’s second big awards contender, the other one being The Irishman, made me realizes that it would be taken seriously rather than just another film of theirs to add to the queue. And that’s just the case because Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film that’s so emotionally rewarding.
If you go into this film expecting to root for one side or the other, then you’d be missing the point of the film. The most admirable quality here is that it always stays neutral, never really showing who was right or wrong, but instead highlighting the emotional and legal fallout from a failed marriage. Part of what makes Marriage Story feel so realistic isn’t just the fantastic dialogue but also how it showcases the two protagonists trying to keep it all under a smiley façade for their confused child.
Nicole and Charlie are actually very reasonable and polite with one another when meeting in-person, only turning sides whenever their ferocious lawyers are in the same room. They only really argue with each other once during the entire film, and it’s really hard to watch as they let long-repressed feelings finally loose. By embracing the messiness and lack of easy answers in the situation, it feels like a real self-reckoning for Baumbach and can even seem theraputic.
Adam Driver has always been one of the best actors around and here, he finally steps away from big blockbusters to deliver his best performance to date. As Charlie, he’s deeply fixated on trying to stay in New York and repeatedly (And unsuccessfully) tries to get Nicole and their son to come with him. His hard upbringing has a clear effect on his emotions, as he has no true concept of expressing his feelings toward anyone in a healthy or friendly way.
Opposite him from a different coast, Scarlett Johansson gets a chance to shine in an incredible role as Nicole. She wants a chance to break out into her own stardom after working under Charlie for years, even if that means breaking his heart and ego. The toll this divorce takes on her is immense, compartmentalizing and drinking her feelings away until it all comes flooding out in several instances.
If these two actors didn’t work well together, the whole movie would have fallen apart. But they have incredibly convincing chemistry and their interactions feel so believable that it’s almost like watching a real marriage fall apart before our eyes.
Laura Dern is also worth mentioning here as Nora Fanshaw, Nicole’s calculating and world-weary divorce lawyer. Her charisma is absolutely scene-stealing as she glides through all of the state and county laws to try and get Nicole on top in the settlement. Although she does seem to care about the well-being of her client, her ruthless tactics and meticulous planning only strains the process even more, even if she can’t quite realize it.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is full of stars and character actors giving great performances. This includes Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as two polar opposite lawyers Charlie hires, Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s wayward but supportive mother, Merritt Wever as her experienced sister, Azhy Robertson as their confused yet hopeful son Henry, and Wallace Shawn in a brief role as a member of Charlie’s theater company. All of them work wonders in the simple yet emotionally complex story.
And from technical standpoint, Marriage Story isn’t especially showy but still manages to keep your attention. Shot on 35mm film, the cinematography by Robbie Ryan is straightforward and unpretentious. The simplistic shots and compositions give a lot of room for the actors to breathe on-screen, especially given the hefty amount of dialogue. A handful of panning movements and slow zooms throughout help to keep the action in perspective and get inside the mindset of the characters.
It works really well with Jennifer Lame’s editing job, which finds a great rhythm for the story to follow. The film opens with two back-to-back montages of the ups and downs in their marriage as Charlie and Nicole describe everything they love about each other. It’s a perfect way to establish the two and their differing opinions on their time together over the years. Numerous scenes use dissolves or fade-in/fade-out techniques to transition between one another, which gives it a classical feel.
Randy Newman takes a break from Pixar to deliver the instrumental film score here. It’s just as smooth and jazz-influenced as many of his other works, using a lot of soft percussion and double reeds. It gracefully captures the melancholy tone of a failing marriage without verring off into sappy territory. The score uses two different motifs for Charlie and Nicole and frequently repeats them whenever their scenes come back into play on-screen. It sounds almost like a more mature version of Toy Story, and I consider that to be a great thing.
Anchored by some of the best acting this past decade and never getting bogged down in pretension or self-importance, Marriage Story is a devastatingly honest and believable examination of the breakdown of a relationship. Pulling from his own past without taking any sides, Noah Baumbach has delivered arguably his best film yet and one I’m sure will speak to many viewers’ own experiences. Driver and Johansson are obviously amazing in their roles, but the excellent dialogue and realistic interactions help to drive this film all the way home.