James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO — Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY is a deeply personal film about a disintegrating marriage. It equally shows both sides with compassion, understanding and (ultimately) frustration. The story doesn’t place blame on either one of its protagonists, and it’s a wonderfully helpful tutorial guide for couples to cope with their feelings together.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver provide layered performances that develop into fully-fleshed out characters. It has been said that this film was picked from Baumbach’s split from Jennifer Jason Leigh. But don’t let that worry you. MARRIAGE STORY doesn’t see the filmmaker producing a hate letter. This story takes an investigative look that doesn’t play the blame game.
We meet Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) after they’ve already decided to divorce. Together, they live in New York City with their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). They collaborate at an experimental theater company where Charlie directs and Nicole acts. This film is still a representation of urban creative types, hurdling through their relationships to find some semblance of truth. However, MARRIAGE STORY rises above the typical neurotic fodder made famous in the 1970s by Woody Allen.
If you’ve seen the dueling trailers released for the film, you’ve see the style the film inflicts. It gives personal details and quirks about each spouse. Learning the roles in the relationship helps set the stage for what is to come. Fifteen minutes into the film, we already have an annotated history on their relational dynamics. Both have their faults, and while the film is a bit tougher on Charlie than Nicole (in my opinion), there isn’t one inciting event that asks the audience to choose sides. Both are sympathetic enough to get their points across.
Much like the narrative perspectives, MARRIAGE STORY is split between Los Angeles and New York. Nicole has landed a lucrative pilot in L.A. after taking a ten-year hiatus from screen acting to work with Charlie at the theater. Aside from the wonderfully universal themes, it is a bit funny how easy Baumbach makes their creative pursuits look.
Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern), a flashy divorce lawyer who comes with a hefty price tag to sort out their finances and custody of Henry. Johansson gives the best acting of her lengthy career in a scene with Dern where Nicole recounts her view of what happened with Charlie. She doesn’t make him out to be the villain, only explains her side of the story. These scenes are poignant and remind couples who argue that the key is communication.
They claim to be a New York Based family, but Nicole was raised in L.A. with her mother, Sandra (a supremely funny Julie Hagerty), and sister, Cassie (Merrit Wever). Plus, Charlie was served the divorce papers in California. This all seems a bit strategic, so it’s time for Charlie to lawyer up, which, of course, he puts off for a month. He ends up flip-flopping from a $950 an hour lawyer (Ray Liotta) and an attorney (Alan Alda) with a more modest price tag at $450. While Nicole has her family, Charlie is completely alone.
This film gets nasty during the divorce proceedings. Charlie’s being drained of the money he was rewarded for a MacArthur Grant to put back into his theater. Baumbach does his best directing work to date in these scenes, providing layers upon layers of deep empathy for his two characters. They are both treated with such reverence in each scene. Like many divorces, children are the real victims — and, as a child of divorce, having two Christmases isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While the custody battles are all about what’s best for Henry, he seems mainly oblivious to the severity of the situation.
Over the past decade, Johansson has been busy doing all the Marvel stuff. Thankfully, Baumbach got her back in the swing of things with her most mature role yet. Nicole is the one who initiates the divorce, and Johansson shows the turmoil she is facing on doing this decision, for herself and nobody else. After starring in a lame teen comedy in her younger days, Nicole was a vital part of the theater, but she still always felt like she was in Charlie’s shadow. Everything was about the theater, even their marriage. You can’t help but feel for Nicole as she rediscovers herself, despite still loving what he meant to her life.
Driver is another story. This guy — who was recently called by Martin Scorsese, “the finest actor of this generation” — shows the internal struggle for Charlie. He’s flying back and forth from LA to NYC and lives in a crappy single dad apartment home. It’s next to impossible for him to focus on work. Not that work is everything, but the theater is an intense part of his identity. He wants to make it work with Nicole. Things don’t get to a point of being pathetic, but it’s written all over his face — the anguish he is in from this split. It’s not until one pivotal scene does his character come together completely, and the wait is worth it.
MARRIAGE STORY is a brilliant character portrayal. (When I finished the film, I called my partner and said when this movie comes out, we need to have some conversations.) This film has the potential to help so many couples avoid pointless bickering. It’s a tough sit, but it’s rewarding on every level with its heart, humor and bittersweet conclusion.
While this film may seem like a soul-sucking film-going experience, it’s anything but that. MARRIAGE STORY breathes life into the hardships of having a parter in your life. It’s a wonderful film that reveals intimate parts of our lives we may have trouble articulating. It may be a bit uncomfortable, but that’s life.
MARRIAGE STORY premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An encore screening will be held on September 14. Visit tiff.net for more information. Netflix will release the film theatrically on November 6, and it will be available on the streaming service on December 6.