4.5 out of 5 stars.
Contrary to its title, writer and director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” drops the viewer into the story of a marriage that it at its end. But even though we don’t see the couple at the heart of the story falling in love, we get a complete sense of what their relationship is and was like, thanks to Baumbach’s equally funny and heart-wrenching script and career-best performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The film masterfully captures not only their relationship with each other and with their young son, but also the uncertainty and despair that accompanies a major life change.
“Marriage Story” opens in New York, where theater director Charlie Barber (Driver) resides with his actress wife Nicole (Johansson) and their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). They are preparing to divorce amicably, without lawyers, when Nicole moves to Los Angeles to film a television pilot. While there, she is introduced to lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), who convinces Nicole to hire her so they can negotiate custody of Henry, particularly as the couple are now living on opposite sides of the country. What initially seems like a simple affair soon turns into a frustrating and bitter legal battle, as Charlie and Nicole fight for their son and reconcile themselves to their new lives apart.
One thing that Baumbach makes sure to do in “Marriage Story” is portray each party equally, and making them both in some way sympathetic. We get Nicole’s side of the story first; in fact, she tells her own version of the story to Nicole in one long take that is one of Johansson’s strongest scenes in the movie. She gave up potential movie stardom to movie to NYC with Charlie and act in his indie plays, but everything she did, she did for him, not for herself. That, coupled with the fact that Charlie supposedly had an affair with his stage manager, doesn’t make him look good. His reaction to the divorce contrasts sharply against Nicole’s. Nicole is the one taking charge, moving forward, already making her new life in LA before the divorce papers have even been served. Charlie, meanwhile, seems to be pretending that nothing is different. He is friendly with Nicole, playful with Henry, and loves Nicole’s mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). He is in denial that Nicole plans to stay in LA, constantly repeating his belief that they are a “New York family” and that she will be returning after filming concludes on her pilot. His denial initially contributes to the sense that he is the one in the wrong, but as the film progresses, it becomes more evident that he isn’t entirely blind to the situation; he’s just trying to salvage any pieces of his old life he can, and it’s horribly sad.
Johansson and Driver both turn in deeply affecting performances. The characters predictably come to a heated confrontation toward the end of the film, and while this is the one bit of dialogue in the movie that feels clichéd, they make the argument convincing. And not just that one scene, but their entire relationship, which they bring a necessary feeling of history to. One of the most memorable moments in the film—maybe in any film released in 2019, for that matter—is when Driver gets up in a restaurant and sings “Being Alive” from the Sondheim musical “Company.” It’s a song about a man facing a life alone, and his desperation is felt with every note.
Baumbach’s writing and directing are both masterful. He frames his shots in a way that often emphasizes how alone Nicole and Charlie are, or how far they’ve come in their separation. At the same time, some scenes in the film are laugh-out-loud funny, like the borderline slapstick routine Nicole and her family go through while trying to serve Charlie the divorce papers, or the jabs at Hollywood life. While this film is very honest and real in its portrayal of divorce, it’s interesting that Baumbach chose to make Charlie and Nicole directors and actors as opposed to “normal” people. The result is a sort of reverse “A Star Is Born,” where the actress rises in fame thanks to the end of her relationship, rather than the start of it.
Baumbach nicely bookends the film with a device that is used to introduce us to the characters in the opening scenes and reminisce on their relationship that was at the end. Maybe it’s too neat and tidy a start and finish to a film that is otherwise about things that are messy and complicated, but there is still never a moment wasted in “Marriage Story,” in which every thing a character says and does plays into the larger story. Neither characters’ desires are trivialized either, and while the marriage may be at an end, there’s always the promise of great new experiences ahead.
Runtime: 136 minutes. Rated R.