Think about this for a second if you would entertain me: on this site alone, I've covered 'Jojo Rabbit' with Scarlett Johansson, 'The Report' with Adam Driver and now writing about 'Marriage Story' which stars both.
On top of that, the film is directed by Noah Baumbach, whose last film was 2017's 'The Meyerowitz Stories,' which starred Adam Sandler, and who is starring in a film I'll be covering in a few weeks, 'Uncut Gems.' Again, this has almost nothing to do with this review...or does it?
Alright, back on track, what was I writing about? Oh right, 'Marriage Story,' Noah Baumbach's new film that's been gathering up copious amounts of critical acclaim since premiering at the Venice Film Festival back in August.
Baumbach falls on that far-too-long list of directors that I am woefully illiterate on. In fact, aside from the aforementioned 'The Meyerowitz Stories' (along with his apparent writing credits on 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and 'Madagascar 3: Europes Most Wanted'), I don't have that much experience with the guy's filmmaking style, aside from I've heard his name thrown around a lot in film circles (yes...that means I haven't seen 'Frances Ha,' I'm perfectly aware that I've now lost a ton of credibility with that sentence).
But it seemed to be Netflix' other secret weapon for the Oscar race along with Martin Scorcese's 'The Irishman' and I was interested in the raw sense of emotion the trailers seemed to be painting, so what do we get with 'Marriage Story?' Well, it's one of these patient, viscerally raw kinds of movies that I was more than willing to sit with and, the more I let the story and character sit, the more it started to click on a pretty deep level. Noah Baumbach's film is as emotional as it is insightful, utilizing its magnificent cast as catalysts to looks at the best and worst of ourselves in the midst of lost love.
Nicole and Charlie Barker (played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver respectively) are going through a divorce after their marriage has seemingly fallen apart. Charlie works as a theater director in New York, while Nicole is an actress who has starred in many of Charlie's plays. As the divorce proceedings continue, Nicole gets cast in a television pilot in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised and where Charlie has refused to spend time in.
While in L.A., Nicole meets a lawyer named Nora Fanshaw (played by Laura Dern) who convinces her to take her and Charlie's case to court and, as a result, forces Charlie to find representation as well in the form of Bert Spitz (played by Alan Alda). The following months result in the two parents going back and forth to regain a sense of stability for their lives, as well as their young son, Henry (played by Azhy Robertson).
If nothing else, 'Marriage Story' is Noah Bumbach examining the most vulnerable kind of relationship, and seeing what happens when two people who want the same result go about it by increasingly mean-spirited ways. Charlie and Nicole both are good people; they want the best for their son, they want to live good lives, and they want to keep the separation process as painless as possible.
Once other people in their lives - lawyers, family, etc. - start to get involved in the process, you start to see those societal and deeply emotional complexities bubble to the surface. There's no winner in divorce, and Baumbach never shies away from showing the odyssey of court drama within a seemingly mundane story. But the mistakes they make aren't out of place and they don't feel inherently malicious.
That mixture of love and vitriol really centers on the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who, in the midst of remarkable work this year, maybe deliver some of their best work ever. Charlie and Nicole are characters that require grace, understanding, and patience, on top of real-world humor and tragedy, and both Driver and Johansson really step up to the plate with this.
You get these sense when they work off of each other that there is legitimate respect and gratitude to one another, even with that tension beneath the surface. Even in the film's "argument scene," one of the most uncomfortable and emotional moments of the film, these two never allow us to believe that their goals don't involve making a good life for their son, it's almost unbelievable for what they can deliver here.
Noah Baumbach deserves a lot of credit from a technical perspective as well, framing shots with that mutual. He has such an incredible sense of the time that the divorce proceedings take, allowing us to really ride along with these characters without feeling intrusive or grandiose. There's even a few flat-out musical bits in the film that are directed with such a sense of patience that I couldn't believe I wasn't taken out by them (not to dismiss Randy Newman's excellent score, I love when he gets to flex a bit more a composer).
So with all of those amazing aspects to it, do I really have to dig for negatives? Well, one of them shouldn't be too difficult to elaborate on: the length and pacing. I've been vocal in my 'Ford v. Ferrari' and 'The Report' reviews about pacing out long stories so as not to drag the audience along with. If I have to look outside what I saw in this story, 'Marriage Story' does drag in its pacing in the middle third, and I can't lie and say you may not keep the same level of interest up throughout the runtime.
I'm also not on the Ray Liotta hype train that seems to be popping up. It's not that he's not great (he certainly delivers some great work), but I think I was just so enamored with everyone else that I found his character to tip the scale just a bit too far from the sense of balance we get.
Netflix is in some pretty good graces for Oscar pools this year - between this, 'The Irishman,' 'I Lost My Body,' etc. - but this is the film that I would give the most broad and consistent praise to. It's a story that builds on its characters in one the most sincerely earnest ways I've seen this year, and manages to work on so many more levels than I thought a divorce story in 2019 would try to tackle. If this is the kind of stuff people have been raving about with Noah Baumbach for the last decade, maybe it's time for me to finally get on board, because this is some fantastic work.
Overall, I give "Marriage Story" 9.5/10
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