Marriage Story

Rick and Ilsa, Jack and Rose, Mia and Sebastian, and now Nicole and Charlie. Sometimes the best couples in film just aren’t meant to be together in the end. Unlike these other couples, Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole did get married and shared their lives with each other for many years with no shipwrecks or wars interrupting the relationship and unlike these other couples, they, like half of married couples, ended their relationship with a divorce. When so many films show the magic of falling in love, it’s refreshing to have one show the struggle that comes with falling out of it, especially in a world where divorce is such a common occurrence. Still, it is Noah Baumbach’s choice to present the film as the story of one couple that happens to be going through a divorce as contained to their experiences, as opposed to a universal tale about all marriages, or at least those that end in divorce, that makes it such a powerful experience.

I haven’t been terribly thrilled with any of Baumbach’s prior work (even for a cynic like myself, seeing that level of unbridled, world weary skepticism can become irritating) but stepping out of his comfort zone for Marriage Story, he has not only made far and away the greatest work of his career, but has proven himself a highly talented writer and director with one of the best films in recent memory. Tonal balance, while integral to a film’s success, is often something not quite reached, and something I think Baumbach has struggled with in past film.  In Marriage Story, however, there are deft switches between humor and sadness within single scenes and the film never feels lost or unaware of exactly what it is doing. It is an inherently depressing subject and from the film’s opening moments there is a sadness that weighs heavily but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be absolutely hilarious too.

The film opens brilliantly with Charlie recounting the things he loves about Nicole then Nicole describing what she loves about Charlie and it is immediately clear that Baumbach loves these characters and I fell in love with them too. For the rest of the film, though the couple would be separated by the entirety of the United States, and they were perhaps further apart when they inhabited the same space, they were both dealt with fairly and neither was held fully responsible for the events unfolding and neither remained innocent either. At one point, Nicole says everything is like everything in a relationship and that is the key to understanding the rift. Though there were certain instances that instigated their separation, they were symptoms of the disease that consumed their whole marriage and it was not a simple instance of one person doing one irreversible thing. Viewers will naturally be drawn more closely to either Charlie or Nicole and feel one is getting more time and development than the other but a conversation with someone who falls on the other side will reveal that the film was as even-handed as it could be in its handling of the situation and, because there was such an effort put into making both Charlie and Nicole flawed but endearing, no matter what frustrations one caused during the film, it is hard to wish them anything but the best as their lives continue beyond the screen.

In the introduction to my second viewing of the film, what Baumbach’s direction of his two leads was compared to what a director does when they ask a stuntperson to jump from a building or crash a car, and I can think up no better way to describe the risks he asked them to take and the vulnerability they were forced to display. Every performance is perfectly calibrated, from Laura Dern’s confidently ruthless portrayal of Nicole’s attorney to Alan Alda’s soft and meandering turn as Charlie’s legal representation to Ray Liotta’s characteristically gruff take on his own depiction of a divorce lawyer, to Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, and Wallace Shawn’s awkwardly funny takes on family and friends getting caught up in the divorce, but Johansson and Driver go well past what could be expected of a performer, putting it all out there and elevating the film far beyond the script. Both are among the most talented actors working today and both have showcased their talents through prolific work in recent years, encompassing both blockbusters and independent films with a variety of exciting directors, but Marriage Story towers above most of their works as a showcase of acting ability. They both get their “Oscar clips” (and they should both get their Oscars) as the film takes them through screaming bouts and tearful breakdowns but it’s the quieter moments when they play off of each other that their prowess is best displayed. Though I would argue Scarlett Johansson is slightly stronger than Adam Driver, in no small part because her scenes without him give her more to work with, neither would be nearly what they are without the other, reflecting off of each other and picking up on the other’s subtle reactions and reacting in kind, much as a real couple would after enough time together.

Growing up I never quite understood how people who once loved each other could get to the point that they couldn’t bear to be in the same room as each other after a divorce. The brutal divorce proceedings that two seemingly good and reasonable people went through in Marriage Story has provided quite a bit of clarity on that subject. Though Baumbach makes it clear that every aspect of what occurs is because of the specific characters involved and he doesn’t aim for a grand message about all divorces, some of the content is so universal and the characters are so well constructed that even those with no experience with divorce will be able to see some reflection of their own lives and experience some form of catharsis.

A

A Middleburg NYFF Review

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