Marriage Story

Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

10 replies »

  1. i plan to watch this within the next few days. I’ll let you know what I think. I’ve been busy making a YouTube video of my top 25 films of the decade. It took me a while to get it down to 25. I had another 10-15 titles that could have just as easily made it…

    But anyway, thought I’d send you a link if you want to check out the video. I hope you’ll make a list for the 2010’s.

      • I watched this one; this was a horror movie for men. lol. it’s insane how much attorneys capitalize on divorce. I think far too many people get divorced too soon. I understand Charlie could’ve done some things better, but they could have worked through those things. I think he would have learned to support his wife’s acting aspirations in time, and the marriage could have stayed intact. She gave up too quick, and made his life a living hell, even if it wasn’t her original intent. I thought Dern, Liotta and Alda were all great, as well, all very different lawyers. It was a pleasant surprise to see Alan Alda as I was not expecting to see him. And I thought the scene w/ him and Driver where he pulled him into the side office and was explaining why he should give Nicole what she wants was powerful; top notch acting from Driver in that scene.

        • Glad it kept your interest all the way through. Just one thing about your observation of Nicole giving up too quickly. I don’t think that at all. I think she has been unhappy in the marriage for a long time, but only came to a realization that she was unhappy lately. So emotions and regret have been bottling up inside her, as shown during her scenes with the Dern and Driver characters. I would be happy to see Johansson get an Oscar nomination.

          • yeah, i agree, I think she had been keeping things bottled up for a while, as well; but the reason I said she gave up too soon was b/c although she had been harboring resentment for a long time, probably years, I don’t think she really conveyed this to Charlie and that she was thinking of divorce until it kind of blindsided him. I just think couples give up on marriage too quickly. If couples would learn how to properly communicate I think most divorces would be avoided, including this one. Married couples have to forgive each other every single day. That is the key to a sustainable marriage.

    • Thoughts:

      What?! You quit screenwriting? I’m sad to hear that. I enjoyed reading your work.

      Great start. A movie I haven’t heard of. Will look up “Retribution” on Netflix.

      YES to “The Reef.” That movie made me pull my climbs closer to my chest as I watched it. Tension-filled.

      Thumbs down to “Better Watch Out.” I hated it. I saw the twist coming from a mile away. I didn’t feel as though Miller was right for the role.

      I remember having an issue with the middle section of “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Love Gosling in this sort of role.

      Lol. I knew “Girlfriend” would make it on this list. I just knew it. Thanks for recommending it to me at the time. I think I liked it OK.

      “The Dark Knight Rises”?! Then “The Dark Knight” better be on this list… And “best trilogy of all time”? That goes to the “Before” series for me.

      Great pick for “Take Shelter.” This is one of those movies I need to re-reivew. It deserves more insight than what I had given it initially.

      Haha! I hated the first “John Wick” movie. I thought it was generic as hell. And boring! Loved 2 and 3, though.

      Thanks for recommending me “Sleep Tight.” I really enjoyed that one.

      Yes!! “Frozen” is one of those movies I showed my friends back in the day and they were impressed with it. They hadn’t heard of it at the time.

      “Upgrade” — DAMN STRAIGHT.

      I still listen to the “Drive” soundtrack. Love the film. 2011 had some great movies. “Warrior” came out that same year. So did “I Saw the Devil.” And “The Tree of Life.” And “Cold Fish.”

      I forgot about “The Last Exorcism”—so much so that I had to look up if I actually liked it! (I did.)

      Another one I expected. “The Invisible Guest.” I think it’s my favorite recommendation from you. I was so surprised by it. Wow.

      I hated “Starry Eyes.” I take nothing back from my original review. But I’m happy you love it!

      P.S.: I hope you make more lists in the future. And be sure to let me know! Had a good time watching the vid.

      • Thanks for watching the video. I’m glad you liked it…

        1. If you have not seen The Kindergarten Teacher, bump it to the top of your netflix queue. I’d love to read your review. I think it’d be an interesting watch for you.

        2. I liked the end of Better Watch Out where the brat thought he was getting away with it, but then the girl wakes up and is going to rat him out. I thought the kid who played the psycho was excellent b/c it just doesn’t seem like it’s in his character; it’s like Tom Hanks playing a killer. lol.

        3. Dark Knight wasn’t in this decade; that was 2008. And it was my 1-2 film of that decade. I liked Dark Knight Rises in spite of its flaws b/c of the universe Nolan created and there were multiple memorable scenes w/ Bane; like the sequence where he broke Batman’s back and gave his “molded by the dark” monologue; and the scene he killed Mendelson’s character was intense, as well. The last act became unraveled, but Nolan saved it with a memorable closing sequence that wrapped-up the trilogy. Loved the way it faded to black with Robin “rising” on a platform in the batcave to Zimmer’s score.

        4. John Wick definitely wasn’t generic, as the directing and choreography was different than any other action films to come before it. The world that the director/writer created was unique, as well. Movies like The Hitman or Max Payne are generic. If this one was generic it wouldn’t be so popular and wouldn’t have spawned two successful sequels and a cable series soon to come. I liked part 2, but felt it started becoming a bit redundant, but i absolutely loved the closing sequence of part 2 w/ John and the dog in the park, as THAT is how you close a movie to build anticipation for the sequel; but part 3 was just too over the top, too drawn-out, horribly redundant, and that ending was corny. So, while I definitely don’t think part one was generic, I can’t argue if you just found it dull and boring; i guess it’s the same way I felt about Knives Out.

        “I Saw The Devil” was in my top 50 of the decade. I had to leave a lot of great titles off my list. “The Unknown Girl” almost made this list. Yeah, definitely check out “Retribution” and write a review; it’s one of those films more people need to know about.

        I’m glad to see you actually agreed w/ the majority of my picks. You should make a top 10 or 25 of the decade list here on your blog.

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