Starring-Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson
Scott’s Review #959
Reviewed November 14, 2019
Marriage Story (2019) is a film that could have been generic, melodramatic, or contrived. Before it was released it was described as a “really good” version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Terms of Endearment (1983). Those are excellent films but marginally sappy and overwrought. Marriage Story excels at being a smart, powerful, and realistic portrayal of a marriage disintegrating, painting a picture of how good people can turn ugly under certain circumstances. Believe the hype of how good this film is.
Taking place in both New York City and Los Angeles, we meet Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a theater director and his wife, an actress who stars in his plays. They fill notebook paper of what they love most about each other, and the list is lengthy. Appearing to be madly in love, the audience soon realizes that the couple is amid an amicable separation, the writings a result of an assignment by a “separations counselor”, hired to make things easier.
Charlie and Nicole share an eight-year-old son named Henry. Nicole returns to Los Angeles to resume her acting career and spend time with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). Adam, successful in New York City, plans to stay and reside with his son. Nicole hires a tough lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), while Charlie begrudgingly hires semi-retired attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), and later Jay (Ray Liotta). Nicole and Charlie are sensible, planning to work things out by themselves, only needing representation for formalities, or so they think.
The situation escalates, spinning out of control as their divorce becomes increasingly hostile as custody of their young son ups the ante. Qualities they once loved about each other become hate filled arguments as the couple fights and feuds as their attorney’s scramble for a leg up. Can the couple save themselves as secrets bubble to the surface and situations are used against each other?
The film is a lengthy two-hours and sixteen minutes, so the plot takes time to capture its viewer. When it eventually takes grip it never let’s go, forcefully enrapturing the watcher. We care for both Charlie and Nicole and while sympathizing with each at different times, both characters are written as benevolent. There is no villain except the divorce itself.
The key to the success is in the writing. Director, Noah Baumbach, known for The Squid and the Whale (2005), and Frances Ha (2012) knows how to craft witty and clever dialogue, weaving comedy and drama intricately together. He can make the viewer laugh and cry within the same scene. The screenplay is the best part of the film because it is laden with crackling words and interesting situations.
Marriage Story reminds me of a Woody Allen film. Feeling improvised, unknown if any of the dialogue is, the characters speak long soliloquies and endless chatter between each other or themselves. This results in a powerful medium of self-expression and a “talkie” movie. The banter between characters is not drivel nor gibberish, but contains important, emotionally rich meaning and flavor.
The film belongs to Driver and Johansson, each delivering a home run. Driver is the stronger of the two but not by much and this is only because his emotional scenes feel rawer than hers do. When the actors have a knock-down drag-out fight the scene is long and exceptionally acted, each taking turns verbally attacking the other. Vicious rage and emotional fury come to the forefront. This is the best scene in the film.
Dern, Alda, and Liotta are wonderful, bringing respect to the film. Each has been on the Hollywood scene for forever and each plays an attorney. While Dern’s and Liotta’s characters are sharks, Alda’s is a reasonable and realistic older man who has seen it all. Burt lays down the facts for Charlie and makes his realize how much is at stake. Dern shines as the sexy blonde attorney who wears revealing clothes and legs for miles. Grizzled Liotta plans to win at all costs. What a delight to see these veterans bring electricity to each scene.
Lastly, I adore the bi-coastal locales of New York City and Los Angeles. The big cities burst with meaning and are as different as day and night as the film explains. Charlie is a New Yorker and Nicole a California girl at heart. is L.A. The plentiful scenes of both cities on location gives the film richness and texture.
With Marriage Story (2019), Baumbach creates his best and most personal film. Rumored to be partly autobiographical he takes a subject matter most assume has already been exhausted and spins the story in a different direction that makes it feel fresh. The aspects all come together in an experience that is emotional, powerful, and intelligent. The film is a treasure and an example to young film makers that good writing always wins the day.