White middle class couples getting divorced haven’t really set the cinematic universe on fire for many many years. In its heyday, such films as Ordinary People, Kramer Vs. Kramer, and An Unmarried Woman garnered serious box office and Oscar attention. Nowadays, it’s a miracle if a small indie tackles the subject and gets a streaming release. Tastes have shifted. Other issues have taken up more importance in our collective minds. Other voices have rightfully staked their claim. So, when I heard Noah Baumbach’s latest film had made its way to the top of many lists, I felt an enormous amount of skepticism. Do we really need to see a successful theater director and his actor wife fight over which lovely home in which wonderful town they can agree upon to raise their young son? I smelled huge blowouts around huge kitchen islands in my moviegoing future.
Luckily, Baumbach, always an astute observer of human behavior, knows people like me all too well and prepared himself for the backlash by inserting a scene in which a courtroom judge lays out the champagne problems of it all. With that at the very least acknowledged, we end up with a searing, detailed, emotionally powerful, beautifully acted story less about divorce and more about finding one’s humanity in times of crisis. It opens with a beautifully realized montage in which Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) read from essays they’ve written about each other over highly specific scenes from their marriage. The sequence ends, however, with those essays being presented to a mediator who presides over their separation. Charlie and Nicole seem effortlessly polite and sometimes loving with each other, promising to eschew lawyers and make their split amicable. Perhaps because they have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) or maybe they’re just good people, but their divorce feels…nice. We know that won’t last.
Soon enough, Nicole has left their comfy New York home to star in a pilot in Los Angeles. There, she’s introduced to a powerful divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern) who with her serenely cutting line deliveries ensures an ugly battle ahead. This move forces Charlie to lawyer up with the scene-stealing Alan Alda as his council. From here, the film starts to resemble a courtroom drama, but it avoids the all-too familiar tropes by bringing us those in-between scenes in which Charlie and Nicole hash things out in private. It’s a scenario played out with equal parts kindness and dread as each reveals details and motives better left unsaid. It culminates in a stunning argument, a gut punch of a ten minute sequence in which Driver and Johansson do the best work of their careers to date. Same goes for a matching pair of musical sequences in which each actor sings Sondheim songs from Company, and, against all odds, it works like gangbusters.
It also helps that the supporting cast delivers on all fronts. Aside from Dern, who almost runs away with the movie and practically demands a standalone Nora spinoff project, I loved Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s mother and sister respectively. Wever mines so much comedy out of a scene in which she needs to serve Charlie his divorce papers and Hagerty, who has reached National Treasure status by now, kills with her patented goofball charm. Ray Liotta has a field day as one of Charlie’s attorneys, sparring with Nora while also finding these credible grace notes when the two trade light, personal anecdotes. There’s the famous quote, “Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement”, and nowhere is this more true than in the dynamics between Dern and everyone else with whom she shares the screen. We’re used to her delicious freakouts, but here, she glides on a razor blade and in one amazing monologue, she more than earns her inevitable Oscar nomination. A special mention also goes to Martha Kelly (Baskets) who uses her deadpan delivery to perfection in her scenes as a parental evaluator.
Baumbach does some of his best writing and directing here. Clearly he has taken a page out of the Woody Allen playbook of allowing for offscreen space and framing which accentuates the distance between characters, but he also deftly utilizes monologues and creates a sense of urgency despite saddling his actors with overwritten dialogue. In lesser hands this would have felt like a bad play, but this film blends humor and drama so well, you may find yourself completely wrapped up in it. I also loved the scene in which our two leads shut a stuck gate. It’s a fine example of how editing and matching shots can achieve an intended effect. This film could have easily slipped into cornball pathos, but because the characters have reached such vivid levels, it never does. By the time it reaches its wonderful throwaway of a final scene, which could have gone the way of so many “important” moments we’ve seen endlessly, you may find yourself exhausted but completely in love with these flawed, unpredictable, and unforgettable characters. Marriage Story makes the divorce movie important again.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Marriage Story gets a 10 out of 50. In this very heterosexual story, we learn that Julie Hagerty’s Sandra has a gay ex-husband. It’s barely a blip in the film, but it gets a good laugh and feels so true to her character. It doesn’t feel tacked on or condescending. It just makes sense. Julie Hagerty’s characters feel like they should always have a gay ex-husband!
By Glenn Gaylord
Marriage Story is currently in U.S. theaters and streams on Netflix starting December 6th 2019 at netflix.com/marraigestory.