Marriage Story

Marriage Story ★★★★½

By turns sad, funny, and never anything less than engrossing, Noah Baumbach's deceptively titled Marriage Story offers a painfully realistic look at the institution of divorce by examining two people who have fallen out of love and how the dissolution of their marriage affects them as individuals as well as their family. The couple is Charlie (Adam Driver) a renowned theater director based in New York City and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) who stars in most of his productions. In a bit of misdirection the film opens as each one describes the things they love about the other, only for it to be revealed this was done as an exercise at the request of a mediator, while Nicole is unwilling to share her thoughts aloud. Nicole has family in Los Angeles and decides to leave Charlie's theater company when offered the leading role in a TV pilot. Charlie chooses to remain in New York but when visiting Nicole and their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) he is served divorce papers. What the couple hoped would be an amicable split without lawyers is soon made far more difficult, as Nicole hires a high-paid family lawyer (Laura Dern) who has a very high rate of success for her clients. She pressures Charlie to find a lawyer himself if he wants the best outcome for him and his son, and it's not long before Charlie finds his world being upended as he moves to LA, adjusting to the new realities of a world in the throes of a painful and expensive divorce.

That's not to say Charlie is not to be blamed for the collapse of his marriage with Nicole, as she painfully confides in her lawyer, Charlie was a bit of an egomaniac who could be selfish and didn't always see Nicole as her own woman with needs and desires beyond his own, to say nothing of an extramarital affair he engaged in with a coworker when their relationship started growing cold. Baumbach's extraordinary intelligence and empathy as a writer shines in equal measure throughout much of Marriage Story. He resists the urge to write characters who are one dimensional "good guys" or "bad guys" in the situation, rather both Charlie and Nicole are presented as fully formed, lived in people with their own individual flaws and virtues. On a personal level while I myself have never been married I recently went through a difficult break-up with a woman I was in a long-term relationship with, and with the pain of the experience still fresh Baumbach's writing and the heartfelt performances of his two leads resonated all the more intensely. Marriage Story is a film of unusual power when it comes to capturing the dynamics of a failed relationship and the hurt, resentment, and anger two people who fell in and out of love can feel towards each other. Adam Driver has always been an immensely talented actor, but his work in Marriage Story is a career best. There's a scene a bit later in the film where Charlie and Nicole have a bitter, long-winded argument that see's both parties unleash everything towards each other. It's a shattering sequence emotionally and both actors absolutely nail it in delivery. Marriage Story also features strong supporting turns from the aforementioned Laura Dern (always a joy to watch) as well as Ray Liotta as a slick divorce lawyer who urges Charlie to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach, while Alan Alda's retired family lawyer suggests a less aggressive strategy.

In my review of Baumbach's 2015 effort While We're Young (also with Adam Driver) I suggested that the writer/director was shaping up to be something of a post-millenial Woody Allen, the American cinema's new chronicler of New York City-based white folks and their various emotional hang-ups. Here in Marriage Story Baumbach fulfills that promise and then some, reminding me at times of the great master Ingmar Bergman, and once again cementing his status as an essential cinematic voice of his generation. Much like Baumbach's previous career highpoints The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Frances Ha (2013), Marriage Story arrives at a pitch-perfect conclusion that enriches all the drama and catharsis that came before. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it is an undeniably great one.

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