Review: A masterful ‘Marriage Story’ emotionally devastates its characters (and you)
Like the “Saving Private Ryan” of divorce dramedies, “Marriage Story” puts its audience into the thick of all the complicated feelings, bitter domestic rumbles and lawyer fees that come with such a dissolution, with enough hopeful and hilarious moments to balance out the emotional devastation.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s spectacular effort (★★★★ out of four; rated R; streaming on Netflix now) is a highlight reel for everyone involved: career-defining work from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, astounding supporting turns courtesy of Laura Dern and Alan Alda, and a masterclass from Baumbach.
Over a brilliantly paced and thoughtful two and a quarter hours, the filmmaker lets his two main characters explain what they love about each other before chronicling how it all falls apart and everybody must rise anew.
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Charlie (Driver) is an up-and-coming New York stage director and Nicole (Johansson) is an actress in his company with screen dreams, yet there’s as much untold resentment as artistry in their marriage. Nicole wants a divorce and she decides to head back home to California with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) as the couple works things out. The move leaves Charlie reeling, as he juggles directing his latest play with cross-country jaunts to find the right divorce attorney and attempt to keep some semblance of a relationship with his son.
While it’s easy to take Charlie’s side early in the film, since the viewer spends more time with him, Baumbach artfully reveals the internal lives of each of his leads – their wants, their needs, their idiosyncrasies – so that the viewer gets to know both Charlie and Nicole equally.
Which means it’s all the more disconcerting when the divorce gets petty and ugly . It comes to a ferocious head in one shattering scene that begins with them just wanting to talk in Charlie’s LA apartment and, before you know what’s happening, crescendoes into a heartbreaking melee of unbridled venom and anger. It’s a memorable piece of tear-jerking annihilation that leaves its characters – and the viewer – absolutely exhausted.
There are obvious shades of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the 1979 best picture winner that mined similar familial breakage, and it’s a running theme in Baumbach’s art-house filmography, from 2005’s semi-autobiographical divorce tale “The Squid and the Whale” to the dysfunctional clans of 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding” and 2017’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
But Baumbach keeps “Marriage Story,” easily his best outing, fresh and moving by weaving in bits of screwball humor, romantic comedy and even musical stylings to complement the domestic drama. Nicole and Charlie both break into song separately (but naturally), and each instance acts as a welcome catharsis within their tumultuous character arcs.
Driver is impressive as usual but shows more warmth here as an everyman with foibles who is willing to go to desperate lengths to fight for his child and career. And Johansson has simply never been better, giving a knockout performance as a woman equally intent on moving on, with her own life goals in mind.
Divorce affects a wide radius of folks, not just the principals, and Baumbach emphasizes that with his supporting cast. Dern is an enjoyable force of nature as Nora, a bulldog of a lawyer who shows different sides to different people – in the middle of a heated meeting, she makes sure everybody, friend and foe, gets their lunch orders. Alda is also a delight as Bert, Charlie’s representation who takes a more empathetic approach to legal issues.
“Marriage Story” delivers powerful performances from its actors yet is also quite adept at showing the mundane and ordinary slices of life during a moving and artful journey that’ll leave you a teary, satisfied mess.