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Marriage Story
★★★★★
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room

I saw so much crap and over-praised mediocrity in 2019 that I'd actually forgotten what it feels like to see a great new movie. So it was a gift to be reminded of that most special of pleasures, and by Netflix, no less! Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story chronicles the dissolving of a union but, in doing so, weaves a richly detailed narrative about a relationship and beautifully captures the feelings, issues, and necessities that bring people together and pull them apart. Adam Driver plays Charlie, a thirty-something New York stage director of some acclaim. Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, a former LA-based teen movie actress who moved to New York to star in Charlie’s theater productions when she married him. As we meet them they are beginning the long, grueling process of separating, getting divorced, and fighting for custody of their young son. Charlie and Nicole are both thoughtful and compassionate individuals, bearing little ill will towards each other. Still, the proceedings push them to behavioral extremes that neither would have expected.

Some surface details of Marriage Story are similar to Baumbach’s own divorce from his wife and creative collaborator Jennifer Jason Leigh, who starred in the director’s Margot at the Wedding (2007), and co-wrote and co-produced his Greenberg (2010). However, while the picture feels personal, it is not a vengeful or navel-gazing work of autobiography. The protagonists may be theater folk, but the story is universally relatable to anyone who’s experienced any aspect of the divorce process. The picture is both a specific exploration of one particular fictional divorce and a meditation on the process itself. 

Baumbach is no doubt also well acquainted with the limited number of notable films about divorce that precede his, and he includes a few nods to them: Scenes from a Marriage (1973), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Shoot the Moon (1982), and Heartburn (1986). His own semi-autobiographical film about growing up the child of divorcing intellectuals, The Squid and the Whale (2005) investigates some similar territory from a very different perspective. But Marriage Story is no mere update or commentary on these films that came before. Indeed, it surpasses all these previous pictures because of the deeply empathetic and insightful way it paints both of the individuals at its center.

Unlike An Unmarried Woman and Kramer vs. Kramer, both excellent pictures solidly grounded in the perspective of one protagonist, Marriage Story shows us how each half of this couple moves the painful, destructive process forward and the effects of their actions on the other person. Neither is presented as a villain, but both are clearly victims. Yet the evenhanded nature of the movie never feels like it has been reached by some kind of committee of producers or internet activists counting up how many lines of dialogue each character has to make sure there is equal gender representation. The way our sympathies move back and forth between the two protagonists is organic, based on which of these two distinctive, flawed but admirable individuals we are with at different points in the process. 

Nicole is unable to express her feelings, to herself or anyone else, until she is out from under the oppressive, identity-stifling weight of her relationship to Charlie. This gives rise to an amazing monologue Johansson delivers with heart-breaking clarity. Charlie is a self-involved writer, who has created a fiction of how his family works that he’s unable to reconcile when his wife changes that narrative. This upending of the character’s world provides Driver with many scenes in the film’s middle section where he discovers the nuances that lie between compassion, bewilderment, and rage. Though a theater director, Charlie isn’t someone who can make decisions about his real life alone—from what lawyer to hire to what kind of sandwich he wants for lunch. We soon come to see how this marriage served one partner but constrained the other.

The amicable decoupling doesn’t start to turn bitter until the introduction of lawyers. Here too, Baumbach doesn’t present the profession in an unsympathetic, two-dimensional light. As Nicole’s high-powered, take-charge attorney Nora Fanshaw, Laura Dern gives one of the best performances of her career. While she’s always been a fantastic actress, Dern is miscast in at least thirty percent of the movies she's in. Her distinctive screen presence and acting style work well for a wide range of characters, but are not suited to every genre she’s been asked to fit into (like police procedurals, punk-rock musicals, and especially sci-fi and fantasy). This character and this film provide an ideal match for Dern. Though Nora is a shark that pursues her own goals as much as those of her clients, Dern plays her as multifaceted. She is someone who wins you over to her way of thinking via her ability to listen and speak with articulate passion.

In smaller parts, as lawyers Charlie tries to work with, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta get their best screen roles in years. It is scary how perfectly cast these two are. And the rest of the supporting players shine just as brightly. Merritt Wever (Michael Clayton, Tiny Furniture, Birdman), as Nicole’s sister, and Julie Hagerty (Airplane!, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and Lost in America), as Nicole’s mother, bring a dazzling amount of levity to the movie. The humor here is not “comic relief” from a depressing story. It's the rich everyday irony and farcical awkwardness inherent in nearly every tragic or difficult life situation. The way all of these actors mine the intrinsic comedy backed into the script is a pure joy, and Hagerty’s welcome return is worthy of a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Things build to an argument that is not only the best scene in the film, it’s easily the best movie scene of 2019. And, like the rest of the picture, it works as both a universal expression of what so many angry partners in this situation would want to say to each other, and it also plays to the specific context of these two characters. Charlie and Nicole are theater people. They’re writers, performers, and directors whose skill with words and actions have been usurped by the lawyers they’ve hired. Those lawyers have not only rewritten the script these two once believed in; they’ve taken over directing and become the stars of their own drama—a performance these lawyers may be fiercely committed to, but whose outcome doesn’t affect them in the permanent ways it does the people they are representing. The pivotal fight scene feels like a desperate attempt for both protagonists to regain their voices and some semblance of control over the drama they’re acting out, but it’s too late.

This emotional and dramatic high point is not the climax of the film—it’s merely one of five sequences that forever change our perception of the characters and our understanding of the way the events must unfold. Tasked with keeping the story going after such a show-stopping sequence, Baumbach and his actors don’t miss a beat. They continue moving forward to a resolution that feels much further away than it did prior to this argument. A sad yet deeply rewarding conclusion awaits the viewer at the end of this struggle.  

Beautifully shot in 35mm, Marriage Story plays out mostly in close-ups of people in relation to each other. Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, The Angels' Share, The Favourite) utilize the little-used 1.66:1 aspect ratio to frame the faces of the actors and draw us into the headspace of the characters, giving us unique insight into what they experience in each moment. 

The two leads give career-best performances. Johansson, always cool and alluring, makes an emotional connection with the viewer unlike anything she’s achieved before. Between this role and her comedic turn in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, 2019 was a stellar year for the actress. Driver, who’s made a career playing damaged, emotionally unstable, extreme dudes, effortlessly transforms himself into a flawed, lost, but likable everyman. Despite the dubious quality of the rest of the pictures the actor made this year, it is hard to argue that 2019 was not the year of Adam Driver.

Baumbach’s movies are always worth seeing, but Marriage Story represents a tremendous leap forward in his maturity as an artist. It’s difficult to believe that this is the same writer/director (and the same lead actor) who gave us the amusing but trifling mid-life-crisis picture While We're Young just four years earlier. Prior to Marriage Story, Baumbach’s best work is unquestionably his other end-of-a-marriage story, The Squid and the Whale—a picture where the filmmaker’s attention to detail and ability to convey the specificity of a unique milieu is both what makes the movie special and what keeps viewers at a reserved distance.

Though focused on pain, loss, and regret, Marriage Story is a curiously optimistic picture. Perhaps when the struggles, vulnerabilities, big mistakes, and small victories of characters resonate this strongly with audiences, it makes us feel all the more connected to our fellow humans. Perhaps the film leaves us with the feeling that, despite the fact that little has changed about the legal process, the bankrupting costs, and the bitterness of divorce and custody fights, men and women may go about it in a way that’s more conscious of their kids than they did forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago. Or maybe it’s just that when a movie is this good, it can’t help but leave the exhilarated viewer with an enthusiastic and positive sensation. 

Twitter Capsule:
Career-best work from Baumbach, Driver, Johansson, and Dern help make this rare, evenhanded divorce story the best film of the year and the most moving film on the subject.

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Produced by Noah Baumbach and David Heyman

Written by Noah Baumbach

With: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Merritt Wever, Laura Dern, Wallace Shawn, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Robert Smigel, Kyle Bornheimer, Mark O'Brien, Mickey Sumner, and Rich Fulcher

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Editing: Jennifer Lame
Music: Randy Newman

Runtime: 136 min
Release Date: 06 December 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 : 1
Color