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.