Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is full of feels and left me yearning for a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company starring Adam Driver, but I’ll get into that a little later.
In many ways, it’s like Baumbach has produced a “designer-movie” to appeal to all my foibles. Set an emotional drama in the world of theatre and television, fill it with actors from my favourite franchises (Star Wars, Marvel, Star Trek) and give them all juicy roles to really show their acting chops. Oh, and add Julie Hagerty, because everything is instantly better with Julie Hagerty in it.
Marriage Story is littered with images that linger and long takes that prove Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are among the best actors we have right now. Baumbach’s script is littered with “opposites” – New York/Los Angeles, theatre/television, man/woman – which, of course, aren’t opposites at all. They’re dualities, they’re compliments, they’re the flip-sides of life.
As actress Nicole (Johansson) and theatre director Charlie (Driver) navigate their divorce, Baumbach wedges them apart, and hold them together by the lightest of strings. Their divorce is painful to watch because it is so naturalistic. Small moments are misconstrued, or cast in a new light by lawyers. The natural parts of a relationship or marriage work against them both as their amicable separation turns into a fight. No one here is horrible, no one is to ‘blame’.
By giving the cast room to really breathe, Baumbach has made a film that feels authentic and collaborative. Johannson and Driver each get long extended moments to play out. As Nicole tells her lawyer (the ever amazing Laura Dern) about her relationship, she goes from the first flush of love and romance to the everyday existence of a marriage, to the pain of separation without missing a beat. Similarly Driver’s Charlie performs the song ‘Being Alive’ (from Sondheim’s Company) at a piano bar surrounded by friends, imbuing each line with pathos. Dern’s energetic speech on sexism and relationships is fiery and alive. All these scenes are performed in a single take, like a mini-play, giving an extra thrill which makes Marriage Story stand out.
While Nicole and Charlie are on opposite coasts, they both perform songs from Company (Nicole joins her sister and mother in performing ‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’ for a room full of friends). Even apart they are joined.
The comparisons to Kramer vs Kramer are obvious but in no way diminish the story here. This is Baumbach’s best work. It may well be Johansson and Driver’s best work too. As a film, it is practically flawless. Catch it in cinema’s before it hits Netflix, it’s worth the full cinema experience.
By Chad Armstrong
Marriage Story played the BFI London Film Festival, there will be a limited theatrical release in November, before debuting on Netflix in December