Noah Baumbach is no stranger to the subject of divorce – his previous film ‘The Squid and the Whale’ – for which he received his first Academy award nomination for writing – was inspired by his parents divorce back when he was a child.
Not only that, but Baumbach went through a public divorce of his own with his former wife (actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) back in 2013. Baumbach’s most appreciated work always seems to stem from his deepest real-life wounds. His latest film Marriage Story – a razor sharp dramatic-comedy that he’s written and directed for Netflix is by far his most personal and subsequently most resonant film to date. It’s like part of his soul is right there on the screen.
Marriage Story is being heavily featured on the festival circuit, making appearances at the trifecta of Autumnal Film Festivals; Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Netflix must be feeling pretty confident of its chances of being their 2019 equivalent of Roma – a big crowd-pleasing awards contender. After the glowing response from critics and audiences in Venice, its safe to presume acting nominations seem all but certain for its stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and (I hope to God) Laura Dern. With the personal nature of the film Noah Baumbach will more than likely be acknowledged for his writing or direction – perhaps both?
The plot of Marriage Story is centred around a young New York-based married couple called Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver). Nicole was originally an actress from Los Angeles who gave up her promising career as Hollywood pin-up girl, to move to New York to be with the handsome director of his niche off-Broadyway, avant-garde theatre company. They’ve been married for 10 years and have an eight year old son called Henry (Azhy Robertson) but their relationship has ran out of steam. Having felt like she made all the sacrifices in their relationship, Nicole is moving across the country to her hometown of L.A. to fulfil larger ambitions by shooting a (supposedly lousy) TV pilot.
It’s Charlie’s understanding that Nicole will take Henry out there for a few months so Nicole can shoot the pilot but will return to New York afterwards so they can sort out their divorce amicably without the need for lawyers. But things get sticky when Nicole’s show gets picked up for a full season and with her son feeling settled on the West Coast she wants to remain in L.A. with Henry.
Naturally Charlie doesn’t approve of this arrangement after spending his entire 20’s building a life and company in New York that he can’t abandon. This sucks Charlie into a swirling vortex of mounting expenses and legal disputes laid out to him by Nicole’s effervescently vicious lawyer Nora Fanshaw (a pitch perfect Laura Dern). Charlie hires a three-time-himself-divorced attorney (Alan Alda) to fight his corner insisting things won’t go to court. However, the escalating stress that comes from barley seeing his son and the financial strain of paying for flights and lawyers, leads to confrontations where parental hiccups such as safely installing a car seat or having a slight tumble from a bottle of wine is used as ammunition.
The opening scene of Marriage Story starts on a note of positivity with both Charlie and Nicole listing off what they love about each other to a montage of clips from their past. The things they list are the type of prefect imperfections that only come from spending years with a partner that you’ve learnt inside and out. Such as the way Nicole inexplicably always seems to be brewing a cup of tea that she never drinks. Or how Charlie loves the parts of being a dad which you’re supposed to hate like the tantrums and tears – to the point where it’s annoying. This opening montage is shot with such warm idyllic light by cinematographer Robbie Ryan which allows the audience to fall in love with this couple before things get ugly.
Both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are sensational here as Nicole and Charlie. Having them play actors – almost extensions of themselves – it’s like they’ve lived in these characters shoes for 10 years, experienced every high and low of the relationship and brought it to life. It feels disingenuous to call them “characters” because really they’re fully-realised dimensional people showing off every human emotion: love, stubbornness, resentment, pride, anger. As they get deeper and deeper into the negotiations it brings 10 years worth of repressed emotions to the surface in an eruptive everything-on-the-table argument which showcases Johansson and Driver at their peaks.
It’s not just the performances of the two leads that one takes away from Marriage Story. Baumbach has written some truly brilliant supporting characters. The aforementioned Laura Dern who plays obnoxiously nice lawyer Nora is a revelation. She’s the type of woman who will call herself “schleppy” even though she’s wearing nothing but designer labels. Her speech about how mothers are held up to higher parental standard than fathers practically had the entire audience at Venice raising their fists and applauding before she even finished the monologue.
Merritt Weaver who plays Nicole’s sister Cassie has a delightfully awkward scene involving a vanilla envelope and a pie. Martha Kelly also has a scene-stealing part as a court-ordered supervisor for Nicole and Charlie. Her scene in which she spends an evening observing Charlie and Henry has the joyful aura of a screwball comedy. Her unenthused demeanour and lack of dialogue only amplifies how hysterically awkward she is. It’s a prime example of how someone can be pricelessly funny with only the smallest of gestures.
There’s no shortage of comedic gems in Marriage Story which is surprising given the subject of its narrative. It’s admirable how Baumbach has turned so much personal tragedy into universal comedy.
Marriage Story is such a marvelous watch because it’s a perfect symphony of heart-wrenching drama, absurd humour, terrific performances, sympathetic cinematography, naturalistic dialogue and stellar direction. This film is a triumph – be sure to add it to your ‘must watch’ list on Netflix.
5/5 Stars ★★★★★