Time Out says
Featuring powerhouse performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Noah Baumbach's divorce drama is a bruising tour de force.
Review by Joshua Rothkopf
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—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 of them are unfailingly generous. Nicole makes people feel comfortable, Charlie tells us. He, in turn, rarely gets defeated, she says. 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 deglammed, 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 ruined viciousness. 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 for his, 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 L.A. 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 bicoastal strain 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 of an attorney and a gentle, dignified giant (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, respectively). They all 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 through. Driver, flexing his theater chops, belts his way through a ravaged version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” alone at the mike, 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 signature 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.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
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