REEL Review – Marriage Story (2019)

Marriage Story (2019)

director: noah baumbach | runtime: 2h 16mins | comedy, drama

New York-based Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) try to navigate their divorce as cleanly as possible. When Nicole moves back to Los Angeles with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), the two parties begin introducing lawyers making life much more difficult for one another.

Baumbach’s newest feature is the perfect blend of what has made the director so achieved. It has the balance in mood of Squid and the Whale (2005), the fun-loving spirit of Frances Ha (2012) and the subtly in relationship that was so prominent in The Meyerowitz Stories (2016). Despite not having Gerwig at his side (who elevates the lovability of a film with her charisma), he puts his faith in two actors who, despite being opposed in story, are true equals in performance and presence.

The films opening is a sweet and tender montage of the miscellaneous day-to-day activities that Nicole and Charlie do. Each montage is respectively narrated by a therapy driven ‘why I love them’ from the other person, with Nicole highlighting Charlie’s ability to love the difficulties of parenthood, and Charlie highlighting the imperfections that he adores in Nicole. With Randy Newman’s enchanting score backing each speech, the opening is rich with indie-drama quirk and style that is abruptly cut as the two parties sit distantly in a therapists office. It builds character and motivation perfectly and before anyone has spoken you feel a broken atmosphere, a tense distance between Nicole and Charlie that sets up the majority of the film’s structural perfection. Randy Newman’s score is not only enchanting, but adds a dream-like quality to each scene of hope – which in turn reinforces the horror of the divorce itself.

The bulk of the film is made of heart-wrenching scenes that are often broken up by bittersweet montages accompanied by Randy Newman. There is a perfect balance of both kind of scenes, juxtaposing but also complimenting each others emotional levity. But through all the sweet moments the standout scenes come from the emotional outbursts that act as a platform for the film’s stars to flex their acting ability. The strongest is an argument between Charlie and Nicole which, like the narrative, starts civil but turns into an explosion of raw feeling, and while it’s performed to perfection the real winner is the writing, full of panic and wretched dialogue that is the definition of ‘heat of the moment’, displaying the unbelievable power that words can have but the instant regret that comes with them. Other standouts include Charlie’s first time reading Nicole’s speech, the family of three lying in bed together and Charlie’s conversation with Alan Alda (another great performance). All of these scenes never overstay their welcome and finely tune this film away from the ‘tear-jerker’ formula.

Arguably the strongest asset this movie has is that it’s characters are so thoroughly dissected, both Nicole and Charlie are quickly built with small quirks that are consistently present throughout the film, but as the heat rises and the turmoil begins both characters are neither victimised or villainised. There is no hero when it comes to divorce, but there is certainly a villain, which Baumbach clearly shows as the process itself. The technicalities, the vicious attacks from each lawyer, and the competitive idea of deciding a child’s fate. It’s all fueled for the two characters but never from them, a point that works in this films favour. Most of this comes from Nora Fanshaw (Nicole’s lawyer), who’s ‘galpal’ persona and lethal courtroom bravado is played perfectly by Laura Dern, and Jay Marotta (Charlie’s lawyer), a foul-mouthed realist played by Ray Liotta. These two characters, and the overall procedures, just add to the heart-breaking world that Nicole and Charlie regretfully involve themselves and their son in.

As performances go you won’t find two better than the ones given by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Their talent together is undeniable but it’s their fractured chemistry that elevates both to an award-winning level. With the earlier scenes telling the story of Nicole, Scarlett Johansson is quick to highlight the fragility of her character but never playing the victim. Nicole’s frustration and regret is so present, as is Charlie’s desperation in the later parts of the film. Driver’s deadpan delivery, as well as his ability to grasp at emotional ticks of his character, are what has made him such a sought after actor, and here Baumbach is exposing all sides of Driver, from the nonchalant artist to the weary and desperate Father. But the biggest achievement both have is in their ability to be dramatic yet natural. In similar vein to Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), but without the 100-take direction, the two balance their individual talent to bring you a concoction of realism and theatrics.

As performances go you won’t find two better than the ones given by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Their talent together is undeniable but it’s their fractured chemistry that elevates both to an award-winning level.

Baumbach is no stranger to quality, but this is his best film yet. His direction is subtle in it’s display but still stylised enough to give the film fluidity, and his writing is crying to win an award. But the important part of Marriage Story is that no matter who you are, or what life you live, there will always be a resonance in the two characters Baumbach has created, breathing life into a very human experience, and also choosing two actors who reinforce both the artistic and realistic nature of the narrative. The term ‘pitch-perfect’ gets thrown around a lot, but it’s a precise term for the execution and balance that Marriage Story has.


Rating: 5 out of 5.


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