The breakup of a marriage is a painful process. But writer-director Noah Baumbach treats the subject with sensitivity and compassion in the beautifully rendered “Marriage Story.” With six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, the emotionally devastating yet hopeful drama differentiates itself from the other films vying for the top prize.
The Netflix film takes a raw and realistic look at the dissolution of one couple’s relationship. Masterfully acted, “Marriage Story” provides a showcase for lead acting nominees Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who give what may be the best performances of their careers.
The film traces the divorce of Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Driver) after a decade of marriage. Nicole is an actress who gave up the bright lights of Hollywood to act in Charlie’s theater productions in New York City. When Nicole heads to Los Angeles to work on a TV show, the two decide to keep their breakup amicable for the sake of their son, Henry. But as the legal battle between them intensifies, Nicole and Charlie try to keep their family together across two coasts while the gap between them grows.
Under Baumbach’s deft hand, “Marriage Story” gives an inside look at a crumbling relationship while also recognizing the absurdity of divorce. The drama relies on outstanding monologues and piercing dialogue that cut to the heart of the matter. The confessional nature of the script opens the wounds of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage for all to see.
For as gut-wrenching as the film can get, the divorce drama is nicely offset with moments of humor. The light touches come during awkward moments, such as the serving of divorce papers or an uncomfortable home visit. The quirkiness provides a needed respite from the seriousness of the situation.
With its balanced screenplay, “Marriage Story” shows both sides of the breakup. The film is sympathetic to Nicole and Charlie, giving each character equal time. Both characters are relatable yet flawed as they try to navigate a heartbreaking separation. This brings us to Johansson and Driver’s revelatory performances. The two stretch as actors as they lay bare the emotions underlying the couple’s split.
Johansson deftly conveys Nicole’s frustration and wish to break out from under Charlie’s direction. As an actress, Nicole has been typecast in her life. She followed the script Charlie set for them, acting in his plays while neglecting her own desire to direct. Though the character puts on a strong front, Johansson gradually peels back the curtain and allows viewers in. She only lets the tears fall behind closed doors, such as when she’s explaining the breakup to her lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), over a hot cup of tea. But as the film goes on, Johansson evolves from even-tempered to assertive, raising her voice as she takes on a new role in her life: single mother.
But moviegoers also feel for Charlie, thanks to Driver’s gut-wrenching performance. As a director, the organized Charlie ran his family life as thoroughly as he ran his shows. But as his marriage falls apart, Charlie loses control, becoming desperate as he struggles to find a divorce lawyer. Pulled back and forth between both coasts, Driver shows Charlie’s ardent devotion to his son while his exhaustion gradually turns into anger. It’s a more emotionally driven performance than what we’ve previously seen from the talented young actor.
Despite the former couple’s pledge to keep things friendly, their lawyers disrupt the truce, stoking an atmosphere of distrust. The screenplay maintains the tension until the vitriol becomes too much for both parties, building to a dramatic third-act showdown. Johansson and Driver face off in an intense, no-holds barred argument, one of the most charged moments in any film this year. Both shine as they give into their emotions, running the gamut from blame to anger to shame and regret. The scene highlights why both are deserving of their Oscar nods.
The film also boasts a capable supporting cast. Dern, who is nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar, has been sweeping the awards circuit. But this is confounding as Dern’s performance is just fine – and nothing more. Her role as bold and sassy divorce lawyer Nora, reminiscent of her character on “Big Little Lies,” is simply OK, but not extraordinary. Meanwhile, Alan Alda gives a lovely turn as Charlie’s kind-hearted divorce lawyer, who acknowledges the flawed nature of the divorce process.
“Marriage Story” stirs up a whirlwind of feelings, which may be hard to sit through if you’ve experienced a divorce or breakup. It covers a difficult time in life that moviegoers may not want to revisit. But the film offers a catharsis, allowing its characters as well as its audience to come to terms with their feelings. As Nicole and Charlie embark on separate lives, the film acknowledges they will forever be tied to one another. “Marriage Story” finds comfort in song, an unusual but daring choice that works for its theatrical protagonists.
As tragic as it is beautiful, “Marriage Story” delivers an insightful breakdown of a breakup. Baumbach’s divorce drama is a heartfelt journey that deserves its place among the best picture contenders of the year.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Behind the extraordinary writing and directing of Noah Baumbach paired with two actors capable of carrying out his vision, “Marriage Story” rises above the level of a run-of-the-mill romantic dramedy to one of the best films of the year.
Scarlett Johansson (Nicole) gives one of the greatest performances of her career in a monster year for the veteran actress. She earned an Oscar nomination for best actress in “Marriage Story” and supporting actress in “Jojo Rabbit.” While not the favorite in either category, Johansson did plenty with her performance in “Marriage Story” to compete for the trophy. She has to pull the audience into the story and make it care about the relationship she has with Adam Driver (Charlie). Or at least care about her.
Not only does the audience care, but it establishes an emotional connection with Johansson’s character. She does a phenomenal job balancing her emotions as she tries to remain strong to mask her vulnerability. She holds her crying in until she’s either alone, talking to her lawyer in private or nobody is looking. While it is a dual-lead performance, Johansson is the pulse of the film. She just has to do so much, because her character is coming out of her shell. Whether level-headed, passive aggressive or flat-out screaming, Johansson makes every emotion feel real.
While Johansson is the straw that stirs the drink, Driver takes “Marriage Story” to another level as he matches her performance. He earned his second straight Academy Award nomination (supporting actor for “BlacKkKlansman” last year) as he captured the nod for best actor before the Feb. 9 awards show. Driver takes a different route in his evolution. While Johansson develops the courage to gain her freedom, Driver loses the control he always took for granted. He struggles to cope with the chaos he isn’t used to as his job is director of a theater company. Fittingly, Johansson is an actress in all his productions. She always wanted to direct, but Driver makes her play the role he thinks she should play. This mirrors their relationship.
That makes it seem like Driver’s character is the bad guy, but the audience also feels for him. Driver is always on the move as he tries to balance a divorce, his theater company and trips back and forth from Los Angeles to New York. The audience’s anxiety grows as Driver’s stress increases. His descent into madness is so real as his frustration builds slowly with each new obstacle. He also has some strong sequences where his physical acting proves pretty funny.
Their relationship proves powerful and it’s all thanks to the man behind the camera. Baumbach puts the perfect dialogue in the duo’s mouths while keeping the movie at the proper pace from the director’s chair. As the tension builds, the speed of the dialogue ramps up. Also, earning three nominations out of the four acting categories means the director is doing something right. Well, a lot of things right. Baumbach knew exactly what he needed from his actors.
Baumbach’s timing is also fantastic as he’s able to balance humor and drama. There are a lot of scenes that will have the audience on the edge of its seat, but Baumbach will somehow find a way to fit in a joke to beautifully break up the tension. While dealing with a situation many have to go through, it’s important to find humor to keep the audience engaged. Without varied emotions, the audience could get stuck in the monotony of a dramatic situation.
Randy Newman’s score is simple and beautiful as it blends perfectly with each sequence.
My problems with the film are mostly nitpicks. Going into the movie, I knew Laura Dern has been not only nominated, but continues to shred the competition on the awards circuit for her supporting role in “Marriage Story.” It was hyped before I saw the movie, so maybe the bar was too high. However, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why her performance has been far and away the best on the awards circuit. Dern is great. She’s had an amazing career and she’s excellent in “Marriage Story.” But, nothing about her performance sticks out as award worthy. She doesn’t steal any scenes. Johansson and Driver dominate this movie. Their brilliance overshadows Dern’s solid performance.
While most of the film has a strong and at times perfect pace, “Marriage Story” takes about 20 or so minutes to get moving. That’s when the audience first finds out one of the problems of the relationship. The wait isn’t that long, but it was difficult to care without knowing the main characters’ problems. Once it hooked the audience, it was on board the rest of the way.
“Marriage Story” is a beautifully written, acted and directed film that balances comedy with drama perfectly. The collaboration among Baumbach, Johansson and Driver blew me away as “Marriage Story” is the best movie Netflix had to offer in 2019.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak