Marriage Story ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A movie that really pulls at your heart strings, as you learn to care for these people who are going through a divorce, and deal with all that they encounter.
A genuine masterpiece, this movie is funny and compelling, both at the same time. It’s a black comedy about divorce, the likes of which we have never seen before. There have other movies about separation and divorce that have worked, (Kramer Vs Kramer, The War of the Roses,) but this one takes a realistic approach, gives us the perspectives of each side, and does it all with a healthy mix of black comedy punctuating nearly every scene. The acting here is truly fantastic, as nearly all actors involved are giving the performance of their career. There’s a reason why Scarlet Johanssen, Adam Driver, and Laura Der have all been Oscar nominated for this one. Those honors are well-deserved. The movie is entirely compelling, and even manages to often be kind of fun.
Marriage Story is a movie that seemingly does the impossible. It tells two sides of a divorce case story and makes each one more or less equally appealing. It makes a movie about going through a divorce incredibly interesting. And it does that by telling the story of two people who are generally pretty civil and kind to each other. With a movie like this, you expect these two to treat each other awful in order to get strong audience reactions. Something like a War of the Roses, only more drama than comedy. Well, Marriage Story doesn’t go that route. Instead, it finds black comedy moments mostly in the way that side characters treat our protagonists. And it sticks to a pretty artistic and compelling story that gets us to really care about the characters.
Those characters are Charlie, (Adam Driver,) and Nicole, (Scarlet Johansson.) Both of them are giving the performances of their careers. They have both been Oscar nominated for their work, and these honors are well-deserved. The movie takes each character to places of darkness and also to places of kindness and sensitivity. It does these things by showing how these characters really do care about each other, but the situation just eats at them more and more. This leads to the boundaries and parameters they once set up, for how to go about the divorce, getting torn down and cut to threads.
The movie begins with two montages, each with one of the characters giving a voice-over narration. In Nicole’s montage, she is talking all about Charlie, and what she loves about him. In Charlie’s montage, he is talking all about Nicole. Some of the things they say are back-handed compliments, and so kind of funny. And it’s worth noting that they both say the other one is very competitive. But for the most part, it’s all pretty positive, and that does a handful of things for the audience. First, it introduces us to the characters and their lives. Second, it tells us what they think of each other. And lastly, because just about everything in here is kind and complimentary, they get us to look at each character in a positive way. It gets us to start caring about them, from the start.
The monologue ends at a mediators office. It turns out the mediator is the one who asked them to each write down what they like about the other one. He wants them to remember why they fell for each other in the first place. It’s his job to try to get them back together, if it’s in any way possible. But clearly it’s not. What we heard them say, in voice-over narration, about the other one, is actually what they wrote down. It sounds like a good idea, but it backfires when Nicole doesn’t want to read hers out loud. This leads to a rift between her and the mediator. When Charlie agrees with the mediator, it make it seem like it’s the two guys teaming up against the girl, and so Nicole walks out.
From there, we see a show they do (Nicole is the actress and Charlie is the director,) and then a party at a restaurant. At the party, we hear plenty of side conversations, each one of them gossiping about Charlie and Nicole. The cast members feel like the kids who are watching their parents break up. When a character makes a toast, aside from the humor element (where the character, played by the great Wallace Shawn, makes it all about himself,) the toast is about Charlie and Nicole. It helps establish a lot about what is currently happening. Nicole is moving to L.A. to do a TV show pilot, and Charlie and the theater company are moving their show to Broadway. And by the end of the toast, we have a clear sense of not just what’s going on between these two characters, but also what is going on in their lives, outside of their relationship.
The night ends with a fantastic scene of a subway ride, where Charlie and Nicole are in a nearly-empty car together, yet he’s standing far away from her while she is sitting down. The scene is silent, and yet it speaks volumes. Between the levels, space, and body language, we get that Charlie would rather stand uncomfortably than sit anywhere near Nicole. And then they are back home for the night, with a discussion about Nicole’s upcoming pilot (there’s a funny quip about how Charlie do any watch TV, and then a pan to show he is watching TV,) and advice Charlie has about Nicole’s performance from that evening. It all ends with talk about Charlie coming out to the west coast to see their son, Nick, in two weeks. And then Nicole breaking down, crying, as she walks away.
From there we move to the west coast, where we see Nicole waking up in her mother’s house. We see her on the set of her TV show, getting into all sorts of things about the script, (how her character should know how to hold a baby, how she kills another character and the actor who plays this character might not know about it yet, and how none of the science in the show is grounded in reality, despite them hiring a scientist to oversee that it is.) All of this is very funny. It might not be pushing the plot forward, (the story between our two leads,) but it certainly presents Nicole as one of the few normal characters in a crazy and ridiculous world. And it leads to her going to see a lawyer.
The way it leads there is that Nicole mentions what she’s going through with Charlie, to a woman helping out on set, and the woman advices her to go see Nora, the lawyer who changed her friend’s life. And now we meet Laura, played by the great Laura Der. If Driver and Johansen are good in this movie, then Dern is dynamite. She embodies this character of a sassy, confident lawyer out to set things right for women everything, and nails it every step of the way. Dern is also Oscar nominated, and she is the front runner to win her race. You can clearly see why, just by watching her in any scene she’s in, here in this movie. She not only plays the character well, but hits the comedy beats just right too. Like when Nicole starts crying and Nora tells her to take a few breaths, and while she does, Nora will take the opportunity to tell Nicole about herself. Because that’s what you want to hear when you’re crying. Talk about insensitivity.
Nicole’s getting Nora to represent her leads to Charlie getting Jay, (Ray Liotta,) a hotshot attorney of his own. Jay is a pitbul. He charges a lot and is great at his job. But he’s not exactly a down to earth, sweet kind of guy. Instead, this is a no BS – call it like it is, guy’s guy kind of attorney. He loves the fight, and is doing it for that reason, more than any other.. Jay only has two scenes in the movie, and yet he is such a lively character that he is instantly memorable. First, there’s the scene where Charlie goes to meet him at Jay’s office, and then there’s the scene of a trial, where Jay and Nora go at it. In fact, Charlie changes lawyers at one point, and then changes back again, so that he is constantly going back and forth between the vicious lawyer, Jay, and the tired, older, and wiser lawyer, Bert. Getting an equal helping of both of them goes a long way here. For example, when Charlie switches from Jay to Bert after just one scene, we long for more of Jay. And we get it, when Charlie switches back.
The first half of the movie is incredibly funny. The second half is a little more serious and dramatic. That’s the half where Charlie loses it on Nicole, in what might be considered the movie’s climax, and tells her that he wishes she was dead. The characters that these two portray are so believable and raw, that it’s the writing as much as anything else, which makes this movie work. Credit then should definitely go to writer / director Noah Baumbach, who comes from the same school as Wes Anderson, (they used to make movies together.) Baumbach has been at it on his own for a while now, ever since his debut, The Squid and the Whale. This is the first time, since that movie, that he has turned out a genuinely excellent film. The way he tackles the issue of divorce, taking us into the technicalities of filing in a certain state and what it means for the possibility of moving a kid out of that state, are just fantastic. He gets us fully invested here. Its a pretty remarkable feat, for what has got to be the absolute best Netflix movie yet.