Review | Marriage Story | 2019
There are several moments throughout Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story in which the camera is allowed to linger on the prickly, volatile performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a warring couple struggling through a divorce.
It is in those moments that the film comes vibrantly, thrillingly alive, drunk on the ferocity and deeply felt conflicting emotions of the performances, performing an emotional high wire act that feels impossibly real. The film constantly feels on the verge of falling apart, there’s no way it can possibly sustain such intensity, and yet those lengthy monologues in which the central characters grapple with years worth of frustration and pent up anger feels like a virtuoso piece of cinema in which the actors have gone off script and the cameras are there to capture it all. And yet it never falls apart, it never falters. Baumbach absolutely does maintain that intensity throughout the film, sustaining it through the power of his acerbic dialogue and the twin titan performances at its center.
By filming these meltdowns as single takes, Baumbach deepens their emotional verisimilitude, and Driver and Johansson perfectly calibrate their journeys for maximum impact. And yet neither ever lose their essential humanity. Divorce is certainly not a new theme in Baumbach's work - his 2004 masterpiece The Squid and the Whale examined a family break-up from the point of view of the children. Marriage Story turns this around and examines its effect on the couple, giving both Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) their day in court, so to speak. Charlie, a New York based theatre director, wants to keep his family in the Big Apple as he fosters a growing theatre company about to make its Broadway debut, while Nicole, an actress who gave up her promising career in film to headline Charlie's theater company, wants to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in front of a camera. These tensions soon come to a head, as years worth of resentments and petty grudges come bubbling to the surface, putting sharp focus on the strain in their marriage that they had been ignoring for far too long.
Much debate has been made in certain circles, especially on Twitter, about who the film sides with, but I think that misses an essential point of what Baumbach is trying to do here. While it is likely Baumbach drew a lot of inspiration for the from from his 2013 divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marriage Story seems to harbor to lingering resentment or animosity. Instead, it feels like an act of pure catharsis, taking into account the whole of a marriage, the good and the bad. If anything, it's the laywers who come off the worse, who pick at the marriage like vultures, as represented by Laura Dern (who masks ruthless efficiency with a bubbly, cool-mom demeanor), Alan Alda, and a hilariously gauche Ray Liotta. Even when they're scoring accurate points against the opposing team in a kind of proxy war, one feels that the lawyers are doing nothing but deepening the divide between Nicole and Charlie.
Yet even among such stinging acrimony, and Marriage Story absolutely does take its characters to some very dark, despairing places, pummeling each other with biting words that they may or may not really mean, one can't help but feel that there's a glimmer of home at its core. Not necessarily that Nicole and Charlie will reunite; that ship, it seems, has sailed. But when Baumbach focuses on the good times, what made the marriage work in the first place, the film becomes a truly bittersweet work of art. The marriage may not have worked in the end, but that doesn't mean it was a waste of time, and those moments when Marriage Story steps back and takes account of the marriage as a whole, for better or for worse, it makes the final outcome all the more painful, and yet somehow understandable. It's as if Baumbach is exorcising his own demons here, and the result is a fiery, astonishingly honest account of marital and personal failure that is nevertheless filled with a real desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. It's a remarkable feat of raw-nerve acting, intuitive writing, sharp direction, and a deeply empathetic sense of humanity.