Director: Noah Baumbach
Staring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Julia Greer, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta
Release Date: December 6, 2019
Marriage Story’s insight on divorce and the complicated levels of love is brought to life by a pair of knockout performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Director and writer Noah Baumbach pens a story that allows for all the performers to excel. Through the power of the performances, Marriage Story is beautiful in the haunting way it shows how everyone must balance an innate sense of selfishness with compromise.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) files for divorce feeling that she has become secondary to Charlie (Adam Driver) when compared to his career and ambitions. The decision comes as a shock to Charlie, and things only get more exasperated when Nicole moves herself and their son Henry to California. The story unwinds in an unapologetically fair way, and that’s what most excruciating.
Baumbach’s writing puts empathy on every character’s actions. We get why Nicole was frustrated; we understand why Charlie is angry with the steps Nicole takes; we understand why Henry is always tired and approaching his parents the way he is. There is no true antagonist or protagonist amongst the main characters. It’s that tug-of-war that is most grounding about Marriage Story: sometimes things just don’t work out. There is no rational for love, whether it be the way it forms or deuterates.
The best acting throughout this movie is Adam Driver. Charlie is the most sympathetic figure of Marriage Story because he is separated from his son for most of the movie. He is traversing the country, going coast-to-coast to fight for his son and what he believes is rightfully his. The serving of divorce papers take him off guard, and for the rest of the movie he is trying to find level footing in the midst of an emotional mud slide.
One of Baumbach’s best storytelling moments in Marriage Story comes when Charlie wants to take out Henry for Halloween. A bickering between the two parents sets the tone for the night. Charlie sees his original idea of his son’s costume of Frankenstein be turned down in favor of a cool ninja costume. The sinking feeling becomes a plunging anchor when Henry isn’t enthusiastic about going out for a second dose of trick-or-treating. The night ends with Charlie dressed as the invisible man, covered from head to toe in bandages, leading his son in bodegas to get pity candy.
The punctuation mark of Henry dropping his empty bag of candy on the hotel room floor. It’s a direct callback to when Henry first came in dumped a full bag of treats when Nicole dropped him off. The whole scene is depressing and incredibly effective. Charlie being the invisible man echoes a moment in the movie when he exclaims “He needs to know I fought for him!” A lot of the battles in divorce are behind the scenes and within the minds of the entrenched persons. The emotional scars are there, but not seen.
Now we turn the table to Nicole.
The most profound scene is when Nicole first meets with her divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Lauren Dern). The sequence is jarring because the setting of the room is immediately different from all the settings in the story to that point. It is posh, super clean, and Nora is dressed to the nines as well. Acting both as a lawyer and therapist, Nora sets the table for Nicole to finally unveil all the emotions she felt. Johansson utterly dominates this entire scene because Baumbach chooses to go raw with no-cuts. Once Nicole begins tearing up and venting all her frustrations, it is impossible to look away.
It should be said that Dern is excellent in her role as the posh lawyer. There is an obvious dichotomy between her expensive dresses with Nicole’s house-mom wardrobe and the brashness of her clothes goes with her flamboyant lawyering style. She shines most when she’s across the table from Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), Charlie’s first lawyer. Spitz is the bottom of the barrel lawyer in terms of appearances and his laid back rather level-headed approach is everything Nora isn’t.
Before leaving Marriage Story, Baumbach reminds the audience that arguments and romantic entanglements doesn’t mean affection is lost. The most emotional scene in the movie happens near the conclusion when Henry’s accidental discovers of a therapeutic note written by Nicole years prior. Driver’s reading of it and the cut to Nicole reacting in the doorway cues up the tear ducts.
Then the last act of Nicole tying the shoe of Charlie while he is holding Henry. It’s a small gesture, but you can tell it means the world to both. It’s in that moment they see how they have moved past the courtroom troubles. Just because the love is gone, the care for one another is not. And more importantly, the care for their son is their strongest tether. Nicole ties the shoe not only to be kind, but to also protect both from possibly falling.
By the end of Marriage Story, Nicole is more confident in her career, Charlie is beginning to compromise more with his career and family, and Henry isn’t being used as rope in a tug of war. Baumbach finds an ending for each major character but doesn’t make it a dead end. They each are still in a maze, and the thing shown is that in life and love there is no defined endpoint.
Marriage Story has been nominated for six Golden Globes. Scarlett Johansson (Best Actress in Drama), Adam Driver (Best Actor in Drama), Lauren Dern (Best Supporting Actress), Noah Baumbach (Best Screenplay & Best Picture) and Randy Newman (Best Original Score). Driver, Johansson and Dern have also been nominated for SAG awards.
When the Oscar Nominations come out, expect Johansson, Driver and Baumbach to be shoe-in nominations for their performances to Marriage Story.
STANKO RATING: A-