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Marriage Story

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Marriage Story
Photograph: NetflixMarriage Story

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Featuring powerhouse performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Noah Baumbach's divorce drama is a bruising tour de force.

Because it would have been unbearable otherwise, Noah Baumbach begins his churning, deeply felt divorce drama ‘Marriage Story’ – easily the wisest film of his career, one that’s only sharpening – on a note of sweetness. Married Brooklyn parents Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) introduce themselves via a double diary of sorts, co-narrating as we watch snippets of their urban life: pizza slices scarfed, bedtime stories told, subway stops missed. Both are unfailingly generous. Nicole makes people feel comfortable, Charlie says. He, in turn, rarely gets defeated. Both call each other deeply competitive. Alas, that’s the side ‘Marriage Story’ is about.

It’s a movie that slowly leeches itself of that tenderness, of endearments small and large, climaxing in a ferocious, Bergmanesque verbal showdown (one that goes from cautious chat to wall-punching) that represents a triple triumph. Rarely has Johansson, pared-down and de-glammed, been this aching and betrayed. Never has Driver, even with his ‘Star Wars’ rage monster Kylo Ren under his belt, torn into his lines with such vicious ruination. And Baumbach transcends his own ‘The Squid and the Whale’, mounting a complex moment in so small a space, almost abstract in its blankness – an apartment where there’s nowhere to hide. Presumably, he lived out some version of this scene himself. (Let’s not speculate on what Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s ex and an obvious inspiration for Nicole, will think.)

Charlie and Nicole are splitting. He’s a rising, experimental theater director who has just won a genius grant. At one time, his brooding seriousness was catnip to the Los Angeles–bred Nicole, a former teen-movie star. But she’s deferred her own dreams and now the relationship has soured. Expertly scripted by Baumbach as a showcase for subtle, natural monologuing, ‘Marriage Story’ catches us up to date with their histories via generous speeches, out of which emerge an unusually well-balanced equanimity. You may be reminded of ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ but that movie, for all its fireworks, was lopsided and unfair to Meryl Streep’s discontented mother. Baumbach relishes in the messiness: Separated from her husband, Nicole moves back to LA to do a TV pilot and regroup with her mom (Julie Hagerty, a welcome blast of upbeat irreverence), her sister (Merritt Wever, keenly neurotic) and her young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, a keeper).

Already, ‘Marriage Story’ is turning into a turf war, and the strain of long-distance parenting quickly resembles a pre-chummed sea for several well-cast lawyer sharks. They make the movie unmissable: Laura Dern’s high-powered Nora, a salve to Nicole’s confidence, sugars up her client with honey-laced tea and a patient ear but eventually disgorges the film’s fiercest bits of scorched-earth savagery. Meanwhile, Charlie, naively assuming a quick and painless process, ping-pongs between a beast and a gentle giant (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, respectively). These attorneys bring a rich, heretofore unseen sense of duty to the work of legally dividing a couple and their assets. ‘It’s like a death without a body,’ offers Alda’s lawyer – grim but on the money.

Don’t expect a happy ending. (You knew that.) But almost miraculously, Baumbach has found a way to burrow even deeper into his characters pain –and the scabbing over – after all the hard stuff is over. Driver, flexing his theatre chops, belts his way through a ravaged version of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ alone at the mic, his New York friends watching on as he invests the melodies with Charlie’s tear-rimmed cynicism. And Johansson’s Nicole is also onto a new life, her terrain fought for and won. She sees Charlie only on custody days, swapping a sleepy kid between shoulders, tying her ex-husband’s shoelace out of practical safety, not compassion. As he did with the underrated ‘While We’re Young’, Baumbach is turning his comedies of urban dissatisfaction into something more universal. He has earned these scars – the film will be clear-eyed company to many who feel betrayed by their own hopes.

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf

Release Details

  • Duration:136 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Noah Baumbach
  • Screenwriter:Noah Baumbach
  • Cast:
    • Scarlett Johansson
    • Adam Driver
    • Alan Alda
    • Laura Dern
    • Ray Liotta
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