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Marriage Story Review

November 9, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Marriage Story - image Image Credit: Netflix
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Marriage Story Review  

Directed By: Noah Baumbach
Written By: Noah Baumbach
Runtime: 137 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and sexual references.

Adam Driver – Charlie Barber
Scarlett Johansson – Nicole Barber
Azhy Robertson – Henry Barber
Laura Dern – Nora Fanshaw
Ray Liotta – Jay Marotta
Alan Alda – Bert Spitz
Julie Hagerty – Sandra
Merritt Wever – Cassie
Martha Kelly – Nancy Katz
Wallace Shawn – Frank
Robert Smigel – Mediator

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a poignant, emotional, bittersweet picture of a marriage that is reaching its conclusion. In a drama with authentic humor and vivid emotions, Baumbach creates a very compelling depiction of a husband, Charlie (Driver), and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Nicole (Johansson), as they try to find common ground as parents to their young son Henry (Robertson) through a painful breakup and devastating divorce.

There has not been a film about the end of a relationship this good since 2006’s The Break-Up, which was a very underrated film. Like The Break-Up, Marriage Story works as an anti-rom-com. A better way to classify Marriage Story is that it represents the next chapter following the idyllic happily ever after ending for a cheesy rom-com, where things do not go happily ever after for the main protagonists.

At the start of the film, Charlie is a successful, avant-garde theatre director, whose career is surging. Nicole was a Hollywood “it girl” and moved to New York to start a relationship and marriage with Charlie, becoming his muse and star performer in his productions. Now that their marriage is in its separation phase heading toward divorce, Nicole heads back to LA to jumpstart her Hollywood acting career and forge her career path, with Henry in tow.

Meanwhile, Charlie attempts to juggle his stage production moving to Broadway, while still maintaining his fatherly status in Henry’s life when he lives 3,000 miles away. Unfortunately, all that unresolved emotional tension for both spouses builds as they both seek divorce lawyers in a battle of wills to determine Henry’s future. The conflict is derived from a welling, unresolved anger between conflicted spouses that builds to a fever pitch.

Marriage Story portrays the lives of Charlie and Nicole with stark, keen honesty. They are both flawed, yet likable, individuals struggling to make the best out of a bad situation. This is a slightly offbeat drama with comedic moments and humor nicely layered throughout the experience. Baumbach peppers in moments that are quite humorous and naturally amusing. The comedy of Marriage Story is a drier, true-to-life type of comedy, such as when Charlie and Henry are visited by a court-ordered evaluator, Nancy (Kelly). The comedy is there, but it’s due to the tense, awkward situation in which Charlie finds himself. It’s analogous to a job interview and that sense of walking on eggshells to not screw up and say the wrong thing.

The film, in its already hefty runtime, could have fleshed out Henry’s character a bit more. Considering a great deal of the divorce proceedings involve Henry’s custody and parenting, he could have used more screentime, especially over the wacky divorce lawyers.

While Marriage Story spends a great deal of time building up to the emotional explosion between Nicole and Henry, it is essentially catalyzed by an idea that seems strangely weird and innocuous. The plot could have certainly benefitted a bit more in exploring Nicole’s anxiety about why she was so uncomfortable revealing something personal. Specifically, her reason for not wanting to reveal it comes off a bit forced. There was still clearly anger and mistrust toward Charlie, but the personal revelation the narrative delays seems derived from something else.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson do a stellar job in creating full, well-rounded characters for Charlie and Nicole. Baumbach does well in balancing these characters. Neither one is completely bad nor completely good. Rather, both exist as simultaneous antagonists and protagonists in their own respective stories. Neither one is made out to be a monster or a reptile, or the villain in the divorce. Both characters make mistakes and are shown at their lowest points as they progress through the divorce proceedings, but they also find meaningful strength. Driver and Johansson both shine in their unique depictions of vulnerability.

The supporting cast is filled with strong performances. Laura Dern portrays Nora’s hotshot Hollywood divorce lawyer, which adds another nice dimension to the story in showcasing the long, financially debilitating and painful legal proceedings of divorce. Charlie seeks out his own legal counsel, first in the form of Ray Liotta’s slimy Jay Marotta, and then Alan Alda’s reasonable, fatherly Bert Spitz. They are all seasoned thespians who understand their roles, playing off of the confusion and sadness that Charlie and Nicole experience without ever overpowering them.

It’s quite appropriate that Randy Newman composed the music for the film. There was something oddly whimsical about his score for the film. It perfectly complements the film’s bittersweet tone and underscores the film’s dramatic weight. The music for the film’s opening monologue sequence was oddly reminiscent of the famous opening from Up, composed by Michael Giacchino.

Marriage Story is directed with a strong, steady hand, with terrific and impeccable lead performances. The emotional weight of Baumbach’s depiction of a couple, where love still exists differently after divorce, is strong. While a bit on the long side, the film is moving and finds some resolution, along with humor, from a harrowing experience and a harsh reality that spouses and children are often forced to face. It’s definitely worth a look on the Netflix cue.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Marriage Story is a weighty, dramatic look at a once happily married couple going through the many painful stages of separation followed by divorce. It’s anchored by layered, exceptional performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. While the film does run a bit long and tangential in certain areas, it never becomes outright boring. The humor is enjoyable and dryly appropriate. Noah Baumbach’s depiction of raw, exposed, vulnerable human emotions make Marriage Story one of the most honest, genuine films of 2019.