If you thought director/writer Noah Baumbach perfectly depicted a family amidst divorce with The Squid and the Whale, his latest film Marriage Story will prove he was only scratching the surface until now. Few modern directors show relationships as complicated and nuanced as Bambauch has done and he’s far from finished on the subject. In his new film starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Baumbach takes on the deterioration of a partnership without filtering the ugliness, uncertainty, and irony in one of the most touching films of this year.
Marriage Story begins with the two voiceover narrations. Charlie (Driver) describes what he loves about his actress wife over scenes of happy moments in their marriage. His wife Nicole (Johansson) does the same for Charlie, admiring his work as a theater director and as a father. They seem to know one another in a way we all hope to when we fall in love with someone, but that ideal is shattered when the film cuts to them in couples therapy. The beautiful voice-overs we heard were letters they were supposed to read to each other in therapy, but Nicole refuses to. Despite hearing the love that still exists between them, there is also a rift between them that only continues to grow throughout the film.
Despite the success of Charlie and Nicole’s latest play, Nicole decides to leave him in New York and take their son with her to Los Angeles where she has been offered a role in a TV pilot. Charlie believes that their separation is only temporary and Nicole will return to New York with their son, but Nicole plans on staying in Los Angeles for good. Neither one of them is prepared for how complicated restructuring their lives apart will be.
Johansson is no stranger to independent dramas (Lost in Translation being one), but some of her performance in this film makes it seem like she’s still trying to perform in the blockbuster superhero films she’s done recently. Baumbach’s humor is meant to be underplayed and matter of fact, but Johansson delivers some of the witty lines with an incredibly dramatic tone that takes the humor right out of them. She feels out of place in a screwball comedy scene with Nicole’s sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver) and mom Mary Ann (Brooke Bloom). Weaver and Bloom are capable of showing that their characters are uncomfortable while still being loose enough to embrace the comedy of the scene, but Johansson still feels very uptight.
Her difficulty stepping out of the “movie star” kind of acting and into a role that feels like a regular person is most evident when she’s in the beginning scenes with Adam Driver. There are conversations that are meant to feel mundane, but it’s clear that Johansson has a hard time acting “regular.” Despite also being featured in a blockbuster franchise, Driver still has the tone and aura that feels at home in an independent drama like this one. His jokes and small jabs land without being obvious and fit right into the realistic conversations characters have that feel like everyday life.
As the film delves into more and more devastating scenes between Nicole and Charlie during their divorce, Johansson matches Driver’s emotional intensity and feels real in the process. Some of her strongest moments are without dialogue, which is a testament to her capability of true subtlety in her performance. In one scene towards the beginning of the film, Nicole pretends that she’s okay with leaving Charlie and that things can remain civil between the two of them, even though she’s leaving the career and life she’s built in New York City. Charlie asks if she okay and Nicole answers convincingly that she’s fine, but as soon as she crosses into another room she breaks down the facade and cries. As great as that moment is, Johansson gets better as the film goes on, which makes up for her inability to land some of the humor in the beginning.
The script for Marriage Story demands a lot of its actors and for that we’re thankful. It’s a rare film that shows that relationships cannot simply be good or bad. You aren’t either happy or sad with someone. There isn’t one evil and one good person in a partnership. True vulnerability happens between the dichotomies we’ve tried to prescribe to relationships on screen. Baumbach pulls this nuance into the tones of scenes themselves. The screwball scene mentioned above is hilarious, but it’s also devastating. Charlie is being served his divorce papers in this scene despite all the physical humor. There are scenes that feel like their supposed to be the climactic screaming match we are waiting for and yet there is still a tinge of hope that they will work things out as well.
Baumbach doesn’t ignore any facet of emotion in telling what he calls a love story and you almost hate him for it. It’s a movie that puts you through hell, makes you question the validity of knowing anyone you’ve loved, and drops you into the worst moment in these two people’s lives. The two characters that bring out these realizations aren’t just the two main characters, but the lawyers that represent them as well. Laura Dern gives an incredible performance as Nicole’s hard-hitting attorney as does Ray Liotta as Charlie’s lawyer. They pry on every aspect of Charlie and Nicole’s life to skew into a narrative that’ll win in court. They show that the process of separation can be just as difficult as staying in a bad marriage, which few films touch on as well as Marriage Story. Baumbach continues to write and direct films that are more human than most filmmakers could ever dream of, and Marriage Story is no exception.
Marriage Story will be available to stream on Netflix on December 6th.