A film review by Craig J. Koban December 19, 2019


2019, R, 136 mins.


Scarlett Johansson as Nicole  /  Adam Driver as Charlie  /  Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw  /  Merritt Wever as Cassie  /  Mark O'Brien as Carter  /  Azhy Robertson as Henry  /  Brooke Bloom as Mary Ann  /  Julie Hagerty as Sandra  /  Amir Talai as Amir

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach


Nearly 15 years ago writer/director Noah Baumbach made a huge splash with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, a deeply personal drama that chronicled the divorce of a couple from the children's prerogative (which, no doubt, stemmed from his own experiences being a child of divorce himself).  His latest endeavor, the Netflix produced MARRIAGE STORY, is yet another divorce centric drama, but this time coming largely from the perspective of the husband and wife.  It's a work no less personal for the filmmaker (he found himself divorced from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013), but the viewpoint of the piece is fundamentally different.  Its dissection of the most toxic and unbearable elements of a freefalling relationship reminded me considerably of Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE, although I didn't feel that MARRIAGE STORY dramatically cut anywhere near as deep.  Still, Baumbach's film is staggeringly well acted, and as an embarrassment of performance riches it has few rivals in 2019. 

MARRIAGE STORY opens in superb fashion showcasing the film's couple in question - Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver)  - working on their respective marriage therapy homework, which requires them to make a list of each other's best traits.  When it comes time to unveil their lists to their therapist, Nicole gets cold feet and declines, feeling that the sessions are a waste of time for what she considers to be a dead relationship.  The majority of the remaining 136 minute running time comes in the form of a series of flashbacks that chronicles how this once happily married couple found their union capsizing towards a very heated divorce and the harsh legal battle to come over custody of their young son.  Both seem to have their respective reasons for wanting to part: Charlie is an aspiring and modestly successful New York play director that doesn't want to relocate just when his career is about to finally take off, whereas Nicole gave up her career as an actress to support Charlie's work, but now has a chance to jump-start her own performance career with a lucrative TV gig that's based in L.A..  Both realize that their marriage is on the rocks as a result of this, and they both mutually decide to find a way to work as a team to end everything amicably.  Unfortunately, when both decide to lawyer up that's when the gloves come off and the darker underbelly of their grievances with one another start to get openly hostile.   

Nicole and Charlie are, for the most part, good people that initially try to move forward with as little tension as possible.  This changes with Nicole's hiring of Nora Fanshaw (the solid Laura Dern), who outwardly seems cordial, but inside is a ruthlessly determined lawyer that will stop at nothing to ensure her client wins at all costs and secures a large payout.  Charlie begins a bit more passive aggressively on the legal front and secures the services of Bert Spitz (a splendidly low key Alan Alda), who comes off more as a kindly old grandfather as opposed to a ruthlessly cunning attorney.  Realizing that he has zero chance in hell of winning with Bert, Charlie drops him and hires go-for-the-jugular and cutthroat lawyer (Ray Liotta) to help mount a counter offensive against his wife. It's during these sections of the film where all of the dirty past laundry of Charlie and Nicole are thrown on the table, exposed to all during their protracted divorce case, which inevitably becomes a daily horror show for them. 



The dynamic between this couple is fairly fascinating throughout MARRIAGE STORY, especially for how Baumbach shows them at their most ideal highs, which makes the ensuing legal battlefront involving them all the more difficult for the audience to endure.  Nicole and Charlie are not squeaky clean people, though:  She's grappling with trying to find some occupational autonomy apart from Charlie's on-stage career in New York and he's a sometimes monopolizing control freak that can't bring himself to understand why his wife wants to leave the Big Apple for an independent career across the country on a platform that he feels is beneath her talents.  I admired the deeply democratic approach that Baumbach takes with his story, resisting the urge to take any concrete side with this couple.  Like his best previous films, MARRIAGE STORY is a wonderfully observant drama that captures its characters at their best and worst, which allows individual moments between them to have such potent sadness and pathos.  More crucially, Baumbach genuinely tries to psychologically understand what makes Nicole and Charlie tick, which further allows viewers to generate a persuasive understand how to once trusted union dissolves so poorly and hurtfully. 

That's what MARRIAGE STORY is really about: It works at its strongest when it's an intimately focused work that chronicles the once happy lives of these characters while later showing how dehumnanzingly arduous the whole divorce process can be for good people.  That's every separated couple's nightmare: being dragged through the mud of an insanely costly courtroom battle with their sanity - and custody of their child - being held in the balance, and all while facing financial implosion (and the lawyer themselves don't care, per se, about the emotional well being of their clients...they just want to crush their opponents with extreme measures).  I think the finest dramas about warts and all portrayals of marriages in peril have no specific heroes or villains, only victims.  The central and ironic truth about divorce court is that there's little euphoric high to be had in winning, especially when it emotionally costs so very much and essentially ruins once tightly knit families. 

And, as mentioned, it's the heartbreakingly effective performances by Johansson and Driver - arguably the most bravura acting pairing of the year - that allows for MARRIAGE STORY to frequently pack such a dramatic wallop.  Johansson in particular has a very tricky task of relaying her character as one that loves Charlie, but can no longer stand his claustrophobic hold he places on her when it comes to fully realizing her own career happiness and goals.  The actress has arguably never been so achingly honest in a film.  Driver perhaps has the most difficult thespian challenge in the film, especially considering that he has to evoke a complex and vulnerable man that's also a self-serving egotist.  In a lesser actor's hands Charlie would have been reprehensible, but Driver's tour de force work here paints this man in multiple wounded layers, finding the flawed humanity in someone that's in way over his head and has no idea what to do next.   

I admired the absolute dedication that Driver and Johansson brought to the table here, and their work here is undeniably Oscar caliber, but one aspect of MARRIAGE STORY that ironically pushed me away at a distance just when the performances were drawing me in was the fact that Nicole and Charlie are, for the most part, entitled and privileged people.  That, and they seem equally egotistical in their respective needs.  Their marriage trauma absolutely felt palpable and, for many in the audience, chillingly relatable.  But I nevertheless found it somewhat hard to actually care about this couple's problems, both of whom  are self-serving on an occupational level and, deep down, have their son being essentially used as a legal pawn. This, no doubt, is certainly cuts to the truth of many divorce proceedings, to be sure, but a large part of my emotional buy-in for these characters became a bit more difficult as the narrative progressed.  I drew a comparison of this film with BLUE VALENTINE, which I think is apt.  Cianfrance's film came off like a devastatingly authentic and painfully raw documentary about the lives of its down on their luck and blue collar husband and wife.  By comparison, MARRIAGE STORY sometimes dramatically struck me like a meticulously rehearsed and scripted play, with its performers hitting their cues with pin point accuracy.  Johansson and Driver are forces of nature here, and they should be applauded for their work, but they also occupy a few too many scenes that are artificially melodramatic and don't have a sweeping veracity about them.   

Maybe that's my ultimate issue with MARRIAGE STORY that I think holds it back from achieving true greatness: It's like a play that's trying to be shoehorned into a movie.  Baumbach obviously, as mentioned, comes from a very personal place with films like this and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (he has uniquely lived through divorce as both a child and parent and has now made films from both viewpoints) and the universality of the themes presented in MARRIAGE STORY are approached with a compassion for the characters and an understanding of the repellent ugliness of the legal side of divorce cases.  I was greatly taken in with the sizable presence that Johansson and Driver collectively have here in quarterbacking the individual moments of power, but Baumbach's film isn't as gut-punchingly visceral as other aforementioned dramas about the implosion of a marriage.  It's still a level headed cautionary parable about the horrors of a broken marital union that's worth investing in, just not indicative of the finest pieces from the acclaimed director's superlative resume. 

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