Often the most real movies are the hardest to watch. The ones that capture journeys that we, the audience, experience are often devasting to endure. With nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce in the United States, divorce impacts pretty much every single American in some way. Instead of making a film about divorce that hits too close to home or greatly favors one side, writer and director Noah Baumbach and actors Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver bring empathy and a sense of understanding to a painful experience that all of us can relate to.
The opening night film for this year’s Middleburg Film Festival, Marriage Story opens at the end of the marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlet Johansson), the former an Avant-garde theater director in New York and the latter an actress, aching to start over in Los Angeles. As parents to Henry, both initially want to separate and divorce without lawyers, thinking that out of respect for what they had and their son, to do it as amicably as possible. Of course, reality sets in once Nicole moves to L.A and decides to hire a cut-throat lawyer, leaving Charlie gobsmacked and smacked with lawyer fees, retaliating in his own way. As the couple becomes more petty with each other, lawyers muddy the playfield, and their son unintentionally becomes a pawn, they lose sight of the other’s humanity. Covering the transition into a new kind of family, Marriage Story explores what comes next after a couple finally says, “We’re done.”
Marriage Story, if anything is director Noah Baumbach’s masterclass on humanness. Continuing to use the real-life situations and realistic dialogue established in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and While We’re Young, Baumbach’s script and desire for ethnicity bring an emotional intensity and empathetic tone to the piece. Very rarely does a voiceover opening work in film, mostly it’s an indicator of lazy writing. However, Baumbach’s method of using it is refreshing and clever, proving his talent as a writer/director.
While Johansson brings a sense of warmth to a character not as constructed as her male counterpart, she also brings a frustrating realness of someone who doesn’t fully know what they want, but charges headfirst anyway. She complains that her voice was being taken away by Charlie in their marriage, only to communicate her true wants through her lawyer and behave innocently during their interactions during pickups and drop-offs with their son. It could be that Scarlett Johannsson doesn’t feel exactly right as Nicole, she never quite gains the same sympathy of Driver’s character receives. At one point Nicole’s lawyer Nora (a deliciously spiteful Laura Dern) makes a hilarious and twisted speech about God leaving the virgin Mary all alone to raise their child while he took all the credit and she did all the work, making valid points about how differently men and women are portrayed as parents along the way. Like the metaphor of God and Mary, Baumbach seems more in tune with Charlie than Nicole, forgetting her along the way bit, but still writing her from a favorable viewpoint.
Adam Driver is partially to blame for this, as his performance overshadows slightly. Giving a powerhouse performance of a man not understanding the situation he’s in until it’s too late and living the entirety of it with his heart on his sleeve, Driver dominates the scenes he’s in, giving a heartbreaking performance that divorced dads of young kids know too well. Driver sings a song at the end of the film, that’s both devastating and sweet, adding a surprised but needed moment before the film’s close. The song selection, a Broadway great, shouldn’t be ruined in a review but anticipated as a much-needed cap to Charlie’s character. I would be very surprised if Driver was not nominated for this award season, whether it’s for this role or The Report.
Both Driver and Johansson are strongest when playing off each other, though both Alan Alda and Laura Dern steal scenes as lawyers representing the divorcing couple. Dern masters the role of the lawyer who knows how to twist the knife just enough to make you hate her, but still respect the character’s game. Alda brings a sweetness to the lawyer archetype, lacking the cutthroat nature needed to “win” a divorce in L.A. As his character points out that there are really no winners and losers in a divorce. At the end of the process “You’re still people,” Alda reminds Driver.
It’s through these lawyer characters that Baumbach emphasized his thesis about how we perform in life, marriage, and divorce, as he stated in his Q and A after Thursday’s screening at the film festival. He talked about how the characters are not only performers in their professional lives, but how they perform for each other, others, for their child, how lawyers often perform with little regard for the consequences, how narratives are twisted and misrepresented. Despite the emotional drama, Baumbach finds the levity organically, whether it’s sprinkling in veteran comedic performers like Wallace Shawn and Martha Kelly into the mix or letting a scene’s natural genre shine through. “I didn’t have to find the comedy on those things,” he told the audience. “The situation was inherently all those things.”
Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Being alive is hard. Baumbach takes these ideas and mixes them into Marriage Story with a realism that is cathartic to watch. Like divorce and custody battles, it can be brutal and at times humorously ironic, but I truly believe you walk away from this film a more understanding person after watching it.
Marriage Story will be streaming on Netflix December 6th.
Rating: 4 out of 5