Review of “Marriage Story”

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson, Netflix

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is easily the biggest small film made in 2019. His somewhat autobiographical story of the inner workings of divorce is sincere, emotional, and beautiful. Baumbach both wrote and directed the film showing restraint on both ends, ultimately creating something that’s nuanced yet powerful. 

The film stars a fantastic duo, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson, as Charlie and Nicole, respectively. While the film is ultimately the story of Charlie, it highlights the strengths of both of these actors. Driver has been quietly working up the courage to come out as his generation’s best actor for years, and I think it’s in this movie that he finally does it. As much as Driver can ham it up in this film with the anger and grief his character shows, he performs equally as well with the more difficult nuances and idiosyncrasies of the character. Driver deserves the Oscar for this one. 

Scarlett Johannson is also excellent in this film, but I’ve had many lengthy text arguments with The Herd’s Sports Section Editor Grant Kull, where I claim that Nicole is a supervillain and anyone who disagrees “wasn’t paying attention or is a complete and utter fool.” The fact that I felt such a strong vibe from Johannson’s character, however, shows her acting chops. Even if her character isn’t that likeable, that, too, takes skill.

Noah Baumbach has stated that the film is half Nicole’s film and half Charlie’s with the focus shifting to Charlie about halfway through. I somewhat agree with this statement, though I feel the film is ultimately Charlie’s story because what happens in the film happens to Charlie and is sourced from Nicole, meaning that the plot moves through him.

Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty accompany the two leads in supporting positions. Dern and Liotta both play vicious sharky divorce lawyers. In one courtroom scene, the two lawyers volley back and forth with the concerns of their clients, except, as the accusations fly out of their mouths, they become the most exaggerated and cruel versions of their clients’ original claims. Dern, Liotta, Driver, and Johansson all played their parts in this scene with the emotional subtlety necessary. Dern and Liotta act with a sort of forced gamey anger, while Johnasson and Driver are plagued by grief and regret. Julie Hagerty portrays the mother of Nicole, who’s still holding out hope that her daughter’s marriage can be saved. Hagerty plays this trapped dynamic incredibly well. 

The score is written by Randy Newman, who some may remember as that guy who wrote “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story. Newman is also an incredibly talented composer and singer-songwriter; however, most born after 2000 will recognize him solely as that Toy Story guy. The Toy Story influences run so deep that it took me out of the film in a couple of places. Newman’s soundtracks are recognizable but not as widely heard as other composers, resulting in the constant feeling that Buzz and Woody may make an appearance. 

Baumbach’s script and direction are what holds the whole piece together. His direction is simplistic, which allows the audience to become more immersed in the emotions of this personal story. This is communicated through several moments throughout their separation. This can sometimes have a disorienting effect where much of the plot is left for the audience to infer. However, it’s not too difficult to parse together what has happened in between what is shown. 

Across all the various areas of this film – the script, the performances, the direction, and even the score – you get a sort of subdued anger that I didn’t expect to find. 

Baumbach’s 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale,” another film based on divorce, deals with the subject matter with incredible anger and vitriol. Every character in the film is bitter, angry, and constantly acting up. Based on his work in that film, I feared “Marriage Story” could be even worse in terms of anger: “The Squid and the Whale” represented the perspective of the children in the divorce, and “Marriage Story” is more about the parents. However, this ended up not being the case.

Frequently in films about divorce or breakups, the two characters hate each other. One has, almost always, committed some act of infidelity. The other is rightfully angry at the adulterer. These divorce films contain fight after fight where the two characters can be as mean as they want with no consequences as there’s no hope left in their marriage and no love left between them.

In “Marriage Story” there is still some hope left so the fights are few and far between and their anger is more subdued. There are still some epic fights, particularly one that comes near the end of the film’s second act. But even this is almost immediately followed by apologies and reconciliation. 

Adam Driver’s character Charlie first seeks the help of a lawyer played by Alan Alda. Alda’s character has a particularly insightful line that best describes the dynamic between Charlie and Nicole,  “I want you to know that eventually, this will all be over, and whatever we win or lose, it’ll be the two of you having to figure this out together.” If they had been screaming and yelling and being nasty throughout the entirety of the process this film depicts, it would have made that ‘figuring out’ much more painful. 

Perhaps the most frightening thing about Charlie and Nicole’s separation is that there’s still some love there. The final image of the film shows Nicole tying Charlie’s untied shoes, emphasizing as their last point that divorce is messy, and sometimes people still hold feelings for each other. 

I found the film’s subtle depiction of the dynamics within divorced couples as more honest and, ultimately, more effective than any other depiction committed to film. 

The film deserves to clean house at the awards shows this season, but may face some fierce competition. However, “Marriage Story” received the most nominations at this year’s Golden Globes with six, beating out competitors like Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.” This possibly signals an opening here for Driver, Johansson, and Baumbach to carve a larger place for themselves in the awards circuit. 

In all, “Marriage Story” is an excellent film and a must-see for everyone. I’d give the film an A+ grade. It’s streaming now on Netflix and is in a limited release in theaters so there’s no excuse not to see it.