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Marriage Story Movie Review

Marriage Story (2019) movie poster Marriage Story

Theatrical Release: November 6, 2019 (Netflix Streaming Premiere: December 6, 2019) / Running Time: 136 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Ray Liotta (Jay), Julie Hagerty (Sandra), Merritt Wever (Cassie), Azhy Robertson (Henry Barber), Wallace Shawn (Frank), Martha Kelly (The Evaluator), Mark O'Brien (Carter), Kyle Bornheimer (Ted), Brooke Bloom (Mary Ann), Matthew Shear (Terry), Robert Smigel (Mediator)


Noah Baumbach already made one great movie about divorce in 2005's The Squid and the Whale. That autobiographical film, a deserving Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay, revisited Baumbach's parents' split in 1980s Brooklyn,
with a young Jesse Eisenberg standing in for the director's teenaged self. Baumbach's newest film, Marriage Story, explores a similar scenario in the present day primarily from the perspectives of the separating parties themselves.

Marriage is less autobiographical, but still very much grounded in reality. Like Squid, it's also a frank, rewarding experience that is painfully humorous and unabashedly heartfelt, often in the same breath.

The film opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) describing the things they love about each other. Charlie, a director of stage plays, is great with their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), tidy, and self-sufficient. Nicole, an actress and Charlie's frequent leading lady, is a great listener and attentive mom. These essays have been prepared for a mediator who is to work with their couple through what they both foresee as an amicable parting.

But Nicole moves back to her hometown, Los Angeles, to star in a television pilot, which puts Charlie in the position of having to fly back and forth across the country to see Henry. Both want custody of the child and he enjoys spending time with each.

Things change once Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) hires Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) as her divorce attorney in Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story."

Despite agreeing not to bring lawyers into the situation, Nicole sees Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) on a colleague's recommendation and her sage, savvy advice soon leads to Nicole's sister (Merritt Wever) serving Charlie divorce papers in an hilariously awkwardly exchange. With the 30-day period to respond winding down, Charlie scrambles to find an L.A. lawyer and chooses Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), a gentle and sympathetic old-timer who's been through three divorces himself.

Bert is easy prey for the predatorial Nora and in time, Charlie leaves him to hire the more expensive and far less scrupulous Jay (Ray Liotta), hoping to contest Nicole's move to base the family in Los Angeles. The legal proceedings make for some highly entertaining verbal sparring, but writer-director Baumbach isn't as interested in the courtroom as he is in the couple and having them figure this out.

Marriage Story recalls Kramer vs. Kramer in its content and in its composition. That 1979 Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep divorce drama is not the hippest of Best Picture Oscar winners to emulate, but it has aged fairly well with its intimate human character study. Baumbach has always held a great interest in humanity, mostly from his own perspective as a privileged East Coast early Gen X'er.

Driver is fourteen years younger than Baumbach and Johansson is twenty-two years junior of Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress to whom Baumbach was married from 2005 to 2013. Undoubtedly, there are real life elements from that marriage and the divorce that took three years to finalize from filing in this film. Baumbach's best works draw from personal experience. They include Frances Ha, one of multiple collaborations he's had with his current partner Greta Gerwig, whose Lady Bird demonstrated her own knack for turning memories into irresistible cinema. Baumbach and Leigh have a son together, though he was much younger than Henry when they separating. And they both have their distinguished careers, though more in film than on the stage.

Henry (Azhy Robertson) accompanies Charlie (Adam Driver) as he looks for a Los Angeles lawyer in Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story."

If it was easy to look at yourself and at the people around you and turn them into appealing entertainment, we'd have fewer memoirs and more autobiographical films. Baumbach has an unusual gift for reflection and self-examination and though they've never translated into meaningful box office numbers or awards (that Squid screenplay nod remains his only Oscar nomination), they've made for an extremely respectable body of work.

Marriage Story definitely doesn't find the filmmaker repeating himself or struggling to find an interested audience to
look at his photo albums and read his diary entries. Instead, Baumbach uses his gifts and the lessons he's learned from the quarter-century he's been making movies, almost all of them critically acclaimed, to give us his most resonant and universal film to date.

Having Netflix distribute this, as they did his prior film, 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), frees Baumbach from the officially logged apathy the general moviegoing public has generally shown his films, even when they star the likes of Ben Stiller or Nicole Kidman. At the same time, it makes the film instantly accessible to over 150 million subscribers worldwide. To put that into perspective, Avengers: Endgame sold around 100 million tickets in North America and Baumbach's biggest hits, Squid and 2015's While We're Young, each sold around one million or so with their theater counts always capped at triple digits (his earliest work settled for double-digit theater counts). Netflix has given Baumbach the presumably modest budget and presumably considerable creative control he needed to make this film and now they give him a chance to reach a bigger audience than he ever has. Everyone wins, with Baumbach's outstanding work guaranteed to lead to the major accolades Netflix has been not so quietly craving for years.

Some viewers may bristle at Marriage Story's lack of style. While the films of Wes Anderson, who produced Squid and co-wrote with Baumbach The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox, have increasingly embraced a storybook whimsy, Baumbach seems to be moving in the opposite direction, favoring understatement. Marriage Story never allows scenery to play a role. Its most poignant scenes play out against the barren gray and tan walls of Charlie's hotel room and basic new L.A. apartment. The lack of style is Baumbach's style here. Implicit in that choice is a confidence in just how much substance there is to the insightful script and honest characterizations. Some might bemoan the lack of cinematicism, but as a Netflix movie most will watch it on their televisions or tablets anyway. And if unostenatious camerawork and production design are at all a contributing factor to the powerful performances and deep emotions encountered here, perhaps more film students and working filmmakers should consider going this route.

Though very much the baby of its writer-director-producer, Marriage Story benefits considerably from the actors Baumbach has entrusted here. Chief among them is Driver, delivering his fourth and by far biggest performance for the director. Maybe you've been a fan of Driver since his days on HBO's "Girls" or maybe you know him primarily from his angsty, villainous turns as Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars movies. Either way, nothing can prepare you for the complete command of the screen he has here as a decent man who loves his son and is willing to do whatever he must to stay in his life. Driver sheds a few tears and spontaneously out of nowhere performs "Being Alive" from Stephen Sondheim's Company at a restaurant in front of his troupe of actors. But it is for the most part a low-key performance that wins you over with its sheer, raw relatability. The scene in which Driver's parenting is observed by a delightfully droll social worker (Martha Kelly) is quite possibly the most uproarious scene of the year and that's in no small part to Driver's subtlety and stoic resistance to going broad. He's a very serious contender for Best Actor awards and, as far as I can tell, stands as the biggest threat to Joaquin Phoenix winning for Joker.

Johansson is good too, holding her own in scenes of escalating unease. Just because she's gravitated to high-paying action superhero and action movies and never greatly impressed there doesn't mean she can't serve a project of greater artistic worth well. This is just a welcome reminder, coming so many years since her teenaged high marks of Lost in Translation and Ghost World. Between this and Jojo Rabbit, she could very well end up a double Oscar nominee this year after never being nominated.

The supporting cast is outstanding too. Alda is so perfect and grandfatherly that it breaks our heart to see him leave the movie somewhere around the halfway mark. He might not have enough screentime to earn a nomination, but I hope he does. As his polar opposite, Liotta is also compelling playing against type. He even more so lacks the screentime to crack the Supporting Actor race, but it's a dynamite performance that I hope reinvigorates his career.

Less likely to be denied nominations is Laura Dern, who has been enjoying something of a career renaissance of late with her work on "Twin Peaks" and "Big Little Lies." Her scene-stealing characterization, including an impassioned monologue on the Holy Family, is the stuff that Best Supporting Actress awards are made of. She'll also be seen as Marmee in Gerwig's Little Women, a fact that could either strengthen or cloud her awards season prospects. Also great in limited time is Julie Hagerty, who displays excellent comic timing as Nicole's speak-first, think-later mother. It's refreshing to see Hagerty, who has been saddled with lesser versions of these duties in so many bad movies this century from Freddy Got Fingered and Just Friends to Disney+'s recent debut Noelle, make this much better comic material soar.

November is too early to call a race, but Baumbach certainly seems like a potential winner in Best Original Screenplay, where he'll find himself in competition with Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood), Bong Joon Ho (Parasite), and others to be determined. And even if that somehow doesn't happen, Marriage Story is landmark, must-see cinema.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Irishman A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Joker Motherless Brooklyn Zombieland: Double Tap Frozen II
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach: The Squid and the Whale Frances Ha Greenberg While We're Young Mistress America Margot at the Wedding
Scarlett Johansson: Her | Adam Driver: BlacKkKlansman Midnight Special

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Reviewed November 21, 2019.

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