Netflix is making a big swing at Awards Season gold this year with the power–combo of Martin Scorsese’s awesomely ambitious (and awesomely long) The Irishman and the Noah Baumbach’s comedy drama Marriage Story. A small intimate character piece, this is at its core an acting showcase. Marriage Story is funny, angry, intense and heartbreaking. While the movie is dramatic, it never drips into melodrama. And while there are more than a few laughs, it never undercuts the emotional pathos. Although, at two hours and sixteen minutes the audience may feel like they’ve gone through a divorce by the end.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are divorcing and trying to do what’s best for their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Although Charlie doesn’t want to use lawyers, soon Nicole is so frustrated she gets a tough divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), to represent her. Nicole is acting in a pilot in Los Angeles while Charlie has been happily directing plays in New York for years and the location split between the two is driving them apart, despite Charlie’s repeated insistence that they are “a New York family.” Now Charlie has to find a lawyer to proceed with the divorce and has to move to L.A. away from his play as the relationship between the two parents devolves from casually friendly to increasingly bitter.
It’s wild to see Driver and Johansson as a married duo because it’s like watching Kylo Ren and Black Widow in a relationship drama. Both Driver and Johansson are excellent in the film as the movie evenly divides time between the two, getting into their point of view of the relationship. At times, they seem reasonable or other times they seem incredibly petty. But still, neither comes off as a villain. The movie clearly shows their different perspectives on why the marriage isn’t working and something as seemingly simple as family location is the first domino that falls in their marriage.
Charlie keeps saying “We’re a New York family” to anyone who would listen does seem repetitive and sort of him trying to say it over and over to make it real. But since they were married in L.A., their child was born in L.A., Nicole has the boy in school in L.A. and Nicole served divorce papers in L.A., it makes it incredibly difficult legally to say they’re a New York based family. Charlie keeps repeating it over and over is sort of an odd thing that would happen in legal proceedings; it seems frustrating because it is. There’s also a running gag that whenever someone tries to convince Charlie to move to L.A. they keep saying “look at the space!” as a big selling point. The silliness of the technicalities of the divorce proceedings is also brought up like one amusing and tense scene when Charlie arrives at Nicole’s house and Nicole’s sister serves Charlie notice as it gets spectacularly awkward quickly.
Johansson as Nicole shows a woman who is trying to break free from a life that she feels confined in and rightly points out that often Charlie put aside her wants for his needs. But still, Driver’s Charlie never seems utterly reprehensible; he is just sort of a workaholic. Driver has a darkly funny and also incredibly disturbing moment when he is talking to a child services agent that also shows how much pressure he’s under which culminates in a messy mistake. As Nicole’s divorce attorney, Dern puts in a big performance as the lawyer who has to talk her client into being more ruthless, although there is a hint that Nora is manipulating Nicole for her own ends. Charlie’s first attorney, Bert (Alan Alda), seems somewhat too laid back to be hard hitting as Alda conveys a lawyer who has seen it all before. Soon Charlie enlists the cunning lawyer Jay (Ray Liotta) who is a legal pit-bull. A face off scene with Jay versus Nora is blistering as both lawyers tear into each other while Charlie and Nicole are sitting silently.
Writer and director Noah Baumbach makes sure that flashy camera work never gets in the way of the most important thing, thecharacters. Still, he does have some neat directorial flourishes, like when Nicole is in Nora’s office talking about her life and goes through a breakdown in a single shot that slowly pushes in as her emotions become more raw. There’s also a great sequence after Nicole has taken Henry out for Halloween trick or treating she drops him off somewhat callously at Charlie’s place late at night. Charlie has spent a lot of time and energy into Halloween and he elaborately welcomes the kid who is just too tired and they spend the night looking for candy that isn’t available anymore. It’s sweet but also heartbreaking because Charlie was hoping to trick or treat with his kid but it becomes an exercise in futility.
Marriage Story is kind of a long rambling movie but it has impact as the sometimes intolerable, repetitive grind of the divorce proceedings is kind of the point. This is also two great actors giving their all, going from amusingly wry to intense and everything in between. It’s both a charming and incredibly heavy experience. V
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Daniel Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson
and Julia Greer