Synopsis – Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
My Take – I think we can all agree that marriage is hard, but divorces are harder. In an ideal world, when two people fall in love and get married, they stay married. But since this is not an ideal world and it is only human to run out of love, how do you navigate a decision that can change the course of your life.
Here, director Noah Baumbach gives us a laser-sharp account of how a seemingly perfect couple’s ideal relationship disintegrating slowly at first because of diverging ambitions, and then much quicker later when a bunch of vulture-like lawyers find their way into the center of the squabble.
While divorce has been a rich source for film makers for a long time, it is easy to see in it a bleakness that would make this one uninteresting, but here, director Noah Baumbach‘s film manages to stand out by bringing its own charm into the mix by being emotionally gut punching and hilarious at the same time.
The story is so complex that it is, in the end, startlingly and deeply humane. The performances, direction, script all came together to deliver something that I did not expect going into. Hands down, this is one of the best films of the year, and it’s a damn shame that it has released on Netflix than a traditional theater.
The story follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), rising stars in New York’s indie theater sector, who after being married and worked together for a decade have finally decided to split up. While Charlie is a respected New York theater director, who after years of hard work is finally starting to find some recognition for his work and his theater company, on the other hand, Nicole, who has played leads in his works, is a formerly famous as the star of a teen sex romp.
While their love always seemed genuine, over time, they have both drifted apart. Now in order to keep their year eight year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), away from the turmoil, they both decide to take an unconventional approach to the whole nasty business of divorce by not engaging actual lawyers in the whole process. However, matters become complicated when Nicole accepts a lead role in a science fiction pilot, takes Henry and moves back in with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) in LA and sets about rekindling her former career.
Back in New York, Charlie remains confident that their divorce will be over smoothly when Nicole and Henry return after she is done shooting, but ends up realizes that he is in a losing position when Nicole hires Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a fierce divorce lawyer, who is ready to throw restricted visiting rights and his MacArthur Fellowship grant into the mix. With Charlie’s lawyers, first Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), then Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), also brought up to speed, the proceedings unexpectedly turn increasingly bitter, callous and personal.
Director Noah Baumbach’s film however is far from ordinary. Its characters are far from the everyday man and woman who fall in love and succumb to the motions of typical domestic life. In a way, the uniqueness of this marriage story gives a semblance of comfort. Through this journey, director Baumbach explores how our humanity can be lost in fights as brutal as divorce. He also seeks to show how love can be reclaimed. The film’s climax is a fight scene that is breathless in its raw emotion, pitting the couple in a grudge match. Yet the story pushes through this, to scenes softer and still emotionally electric.
The film is not just about the breakup of a marriage; it’s about the healing and harmony that can be fought for after. It’s there in the capturing of the mundane moments of marriage, like handing off that pesky pickle jar to the designated opener of a pairing. It’s the space between a fighting but silent couple as they ride the subway, short yet vast. It’s there in dialogue that tumbles from tender to volcanic as a long-brewing fight ignites. It’s there in the echo of a new apartment, empty, so all the better for making the insults and accusations bounce back at both partners.
What’s extraordinary about the film is that everyone in this story is right, based on their position in the situation. Charlie is right, Nicole is right and Henry is right, and they are all hurting. And the meticulous fairness of the script is remarkable, because Charlie is the one who is separated from Henry more of the time, he has more opportunities to be in pain, thus we feel for him.
But in a long, beautifully written monologue in the first scene that she spends with her smooth-talking lawyer, Nora, Nicole explains how she fell in love with Charlie, how she began to feel diminished and how she decided to leave her marriage and it all makes sense. And despite the portrayal of Charlie as a fiercely loving person, it seems entirely believable.
The tendency of conversations between Charlie and Nicole to escalate from polite to tense to furious to, in one case, almost incoherent in their fury springs logically from their closely examined eyes and their tentative, layered expressions. There is also a hilarious mishap with a Stanley knife. The aggressive lawyers are the closest things the film has to bad guys, as they both say things to their clients that are fundamentally, unpleasantly true.
The film also brings in excellent performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom are as good as they’ve ever been. Driver‘s heartbreaking performance is one that no one will be able to shut up about during this year’s awards season, and deservedly so. Everyone is feeding off his energy and bringing their triple A-game to this truly exceptional film. Johansson has also never been better, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family but can no longer wait for her dreams to become reality.
In a supporting roles, Laura Dern also truly shines, so do Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever, Julie Hagerty and young Azhy Robertson. This film does have flaws, yes, but as I didn’t expect this film to hit as hard as it did, in the grand sum of the all things they seem too pity. On the whole, ‘Marriage Story’ is a melancholic, heavy-hearted yet joyously bittersweet film that works excellently thanks to its zinger script and superb cast.
Directed – Noah Baumbach
Rated – R
Run Time – 137 minutes