Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly
Director: Noah Baumbach
Running Length: 136 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Relationships are hard. We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning. Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place. These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself. Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.
Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits. The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over. There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.
Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade. She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment. They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other. Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation. Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce. She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.
As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries. As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours. Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed. When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone. Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney. One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.
Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark. That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length. Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others. I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run. Charlie falls into that latter category.
It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film. I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways. True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party. It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath. The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.
Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early. Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work. She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit. I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie. The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master. I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition. What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney. Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), is this an Oscar-winning role? No way. Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.
Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation. Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others. They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie. One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all. It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.