Movie Review: Marriage Story – The Nerd Daily

Written by contributor Tom Hitchen
Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole screams. Charlie (Adam Driver) punches a wall. During this heated exchange, it could be easy to see Marriage Story as yet more overplayed Oscar-bait; a modern-day white couple, both with some aspect of fame from their tenure in theatre and film, working through a nasty marital split. It isn’t the most ground-breaking material. Kramer vs. Kramer did the whole divorce drama, and it did it well. But Marriage Story doesn’t just shake up the reverse rom-com, it shatters it and rebuilds it piece by jagged piece.
Charlie is a theatre director in New York City and Nicole is a screen actress based out of LA. The film plucks apart a couple in marital turmoil that decide, in the best interest of their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), to separate amicably. However, in the substantial deterioration of their marriage, their trust in one another also collapses. The beginning is testament to this; opening on the couple delivering empowered statements about the other, only for it to mould into something else. They’re in therapy. The loving words are just that: praise they have been made to shower on each other.
This milieu of unpredictability and escalation flitters throughout each scene. It is this teetering between good and bad, right and wrong, that Noah Baumbach rolls out his film with an authenticity that only the most careful craftsmen can achieve.
Admittedly calling on his own experiences of his separating parents, and his own divorce in 2013, Baumbach cements Marriage Story in a ripe immediacy that never loses its footing once over the more than two hour run time. It’s the tenth outing for Baumbach as director and solidifies his presence as not just a talented filmmaker but a leading storyteller. In a year awash with Hollywood blockbusters, it is by no means a small feat for Marriage Story to stand amidst the noise and make its voice heard.
Johansson and Driver give standout performances as the Barbers. Johansson’s Nicole is like a firework; steady and streamlined until the moment she ignites and explodes in a tirade of cursing and shouting. Driver’s Charlie is more laid back. He bumbles around, always having something to say but never the right words to say it. Their relationship is like a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces of their lives are trying and failing to jam together. Occasionally, there’s a soft pop of something clicking together and part of the picture is realised. It doesn’t last long though and then the games begin anew in an endless back and forth. What works well is that both characters are on even footing. There isn’t a villain in this story but villainous things still happen.
And while the denouement never really falters – the relationship is doomed from the off – it’s their performances that capture the heartache of a broken marriage yet the giddiness of the new and unknown. The film is about desperation, both in an attempt to save a love already diminished and also to find a place for their own self-worth.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. Laura Dern shines as Nicole’s resilient lawyer Nora Fanshaw, while Ray Liotta plays Charlie’s attorney, Jay Marotta. Dern seems to have embodied some of the energy left over from her turn as Renata in Big Little Lies; she’s punchy and vibrant, injecting a necessary spark into the film’s legal proceedings. The actress is a pillar in a film that always feels like it’s going to come tumbling down, and Baumbach gives her striking monologues and arresting one-liners in his genius script.

“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to use lawyers,” says Charlie. “I want an entirely different kind of life,” Nicole responds. With a screenplay as rich as Baumbach’s, it is in his snappy use of dialogue and his characters’ complex personalities that gives Marriage Story its truth. Sometimes there are moments of hilarity strewn through the fighting. Sometimes a slanderous outburst can fall flat. It’s this raw honesty and the unrelenting need to be heard that Baumbach captures in his script. In as much as Marriage Story is about divorce, it also serves as a callout for taking risks and simmering down life’s distractions to make the most out of being present. It’s messy and piercing all at once and yet never feels overtired and heavy.
The lightness of Baumbach’s screenplay is reflected in Randy Newman’s score. The Academy Award winner’s original music is gentle yet all consuming. A soft almost coy soundtrack seems to wrap around and trail through each scene as opposed to playing over it. It is reminiscent of his work on Toy Story, but when joined with a killer script and fiery leads, the music Newman has crafted stands up for itself as a fully unique body of work. It’s romantic and sweet; full of yearning and hope.
Marriage Story is a scathing reminder of how dirty divorce is. Charlie and Nicole both say and do hurtful things. And yet, you cannot help but root for them. A dose of Stephen Sondheim elevates the final few moments in a touching performance by Driver, mirroring an earlier outburst by Nicole at a family party. It’s confidently written, with a view to brevity and performers who crackle and pop under the inspired framing of The Favourite cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
In all of its tempestuous brilliance, Marriage Story is about being, well and truly, alive.
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