Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s 2019 film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole: a New York-based married couple with a young son (Azhy Robertson) who decide to separate; while Charlie stays in New York to direct a big Broadway play, Nicole takes Henry to Los Angeles so she can star in a new TV show and while there, a colleague suggests that she get a lawyer so that she can file for divorce and soon, Charlie is forced into also lawyering up and from there, as they take guidance from their cutthroat attorneys (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta), their relationship grows increasingly distant and hostile as they argue over their son and whether they will remain in LA or stay in New York.
As with something like Parasite, it has been impossible to avoid the social media buzz surrounding Noah Baumbach’s latest film, with nary a negative review to be found and with many proclaiming it to be an absolute triumph – one of the year’s best that will have you sobbing uncontrollably by the finish. Having now finally seen it, I have to say that Marriage Story didn’t come at all close to making me cry (though no film, save perhaps for Coco and Song of the Sea, has really accomplished that, so I don’t think any less of this film for that) but I would definitely agree with the general consensus that it is one of the best films of the year so far, due to its excellent writing, effective direction and editing, and the knockout performances of its two central stars.
Although stories surrounding couples going through a breakup with a child in the middle is surely nothing new (Kramer vs. Kramer, anyone?), Marriage Story manages to be an innovative and original “breath of fresh air” in that particular cinematic sub-genre and the story is entirely successful because it manages to paint a very realistic and believable portrait of an everyday couple going through a separation with the breakup occurring organically – not because of some major event or with one party doing something despicable, but because these two people have just “reached the end of the road” and because the relationship just isn’t working out anymore. It happens. It expertly manages to “stay neutral” and to tell both characters’ sides of the story, not taking a particular side and as the film moves on, we are able to sympathise with both characters but we also sometimes see the worst in them as, in addition to all the good they do, we see the negative sides of their personalities and at the end of the day, this film does a fantastic job at creating these three dimensional and very believable characters who are neither saints nor sinners, just flawed human beings who are often fun to be around, showing how much they care for certain other people, but who can also be selfish and unreasonable at the worst of times.
And the most fascinating part of the story is seeing how Charlie and Nicole start off wanting an amicable separation, with no lawyers involved, but as soon as the suggestion is made that Nicole sees a lawyer, the ball starts rolling and their relationship begins its downward trajectory, with their lawyers suggesting that they not talk to each other over the phone as well as “twisting the narrative” of their relationship and to bring up any event that will cast the other in a negative light and to go to any means necessary to take custody of their child. It’s quite an experience to see how the system changes these two unassuming people, starting off with them wanting a peaceful solution and then ending up with them clawing at each other’s throats, and we also see how one party can have their lives upended as they are forced to jump through a great many “hoops” – with Charlie not being allowed to meet with lawyers that Nicole has already met with and having very short deadlines in which to respond to the lawyers’ demands – with very bad consequences looming if he doesn’t comply; these parts of the film are truly aggravating and frustrating (in a good way) as we really feel the characters’ predicaments and are left exasperated at what the legal system is putting these people through. But even with all of this, the film does make sure to include some happier moments to counterbalance all of the drama and, thankfully, there is an inspiring message of hope attached to the ending – that although the world may seem bleak and without hope, things will eventually work out in the end.
As well as the excellent writing, Noah Baumbach also directs very well as he achieves an ideal tonal balance – making events dramatic, emotional, tense and funny in equal measure – he keeps the film moving at a very smooth pace, and, with the assistance of Robbie Ryan’s cinematography and Jennifer Lame’s editing, he chooses all the right shots that often do well in suggesting just how distant these characters are becoming; the two protagonists are often seen on opposite sides of the room and in an important courtroom scene, the camera effectively lingers on their quiet and forlorn faces as they look down while the “fighting talk” is going on around them, suggesting how lost, helpless and distant they have become, and in a pivotal confrontation towards the end, the camera is initially kept at a distance but as the fight intensifies and the characters get angrier, the camera gets much closer and this increases the tension brilliantly. The film also makes great use of some clever editing, which manages to capture certain looks that Charlie and Nicole shoot at each other and because of this well thought out editing, the film manages to convey so much meaning with no dialogue at all – an admirable talent, to be sure. Plus, Randy Newman’s score is great and Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” is used quite wonderfully in a particular scene.
And, of course, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson do indeed give career-best performances that must surely bring in some major award nominations; as hinted at before, they really convince in their unglamorous roles as everyday people who are unwillingly put through the emotional ringer. They start off by effectively showing us that they are bottling up their emotions, trying to remain civil even though their facial expressions tell us that they’re holding back their true feelings and as the film moves on, the cracks start to show as the pressure of the ordeal gets to them and they gradually let the nasty comments slip out, culminating in a final confrontation where they unleash their harshest feelings and show their deepest anger in a properly devastating and believable manner. Given an almost equal level of screen time, they both disappear into their characters exquisitely and leave us in no doubt that these are real people who are capable of both good and bad. Plus, Johansson’s early monologue at the lawyer’s office is a particular highlight – a perfectly written, performed and staged speech where we truly get to understand what’s going on inside her head and to realise what she wants out of life. I applauded when she finished speaking.
Driver and Johansson are supported by a great cast and in particular, Laura Dern makes a large impact as Nicole’s lawyer Nora – a fierce and feared lawyer who knows exactly what she’s doing and who puts on a supportive face as she makes plans to do whatever it takes to win her case and in addition, Ray Liotta is appropriately nasty as Charlie’s underhanded lawyer – a man who makes several outrageous and harsh suggestions about how to win the case at any cost, having no qualms about painting Nicole as a horrible human being, Alan Alda plays a very different kind of lawyer – an “old school” attorney who ends up giving Charlie more problems than solutions, Julie Hagerty is a great fit as Nicole’s mother who actually supports Charlie, Wallace Shawn has a small but very funny part as one of Charlie’s actors, and Azhy Robertson (looking so much like Danny Lloyd it’s unreal) is good as son Henry, acting as annoying as most kids his age are without being insufferable.