The following is a review of Marriage Story — Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is one of the most difficult and rawest films that I have seen this year, and I absolutely do mean that as a huge compliment. Like few other films have been able to do this year, Baumbach’s film genuinely moved me to tears multiple times over the course of the exhausting and heartbreaking but absolutely necessary 136-minute runtime. Baumbach has with The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story now made two of the best films that Netflix has ever been associated with, and I actually think his latest film is not just the best of the two, but also one of the few true Netflix masterpieces that have been released this decade.
Marriage Story is a film about a married couple’s separation and potential divorce, which, in case of a fierce custody battle, would threaten to leave their son, Henry (played by Azhy Robertson), on one coast while one of his parents is by themselves on the other side of the country. The married couple consists of Charlie (played by Adam Driver), a successful theater director who thinks it will all blow over, and Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson), an actress who wants to run away from her marriage to her home state to do television far away from the home that she and her husband built in New York City. Against Charlie’s wishes, Nicole hires an aggressive divorce lawyer, who enhances the couple’s frustrations.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is almost certainly inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, as well as his parents’ divorce, which also inspired his film The Squid and the Whale. Though this film is certainly, to some extent, very personal to the director, Baumbach’s film achieves what I thought Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a semi-autobiographical film about its director’s relationship with a drug addict, failed to achieve, which is to say that Baumbach’s film arouses strong feelings and makes you connect with both of the film’s main characters.
The film opens with a confessional-style therapy session where each partner is asked to describe each other. It’s a great opening that meant much more to the film than I initially realized. The role of this opening montage sequence is to be much more than an opening information dump. Afterward, the film dedicates a section to one parent, before it largely focuses on the other for the rest of the film. For this reason, the film may seem unfairly prejudiced against one parent, but I actually think the film does a good job of making us empathize with them both and be upset with both of them. Ultimately, I think that the film has more issues with the system than the parents. I think it is pretty clear that the film is not so much about the destruction of a marriage, but, instead, Marriage Story is about the impact of the system on their relationship, as well as about the way love can change through times of trouble without vanishing completely. When the film was over, I needed a moment to compose myself. Baumbach’s film took my breath away, and it moved me to tears multiple times. It will rightly draw comparisons to both Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, but I think it is arguably just as good and effective as those films.
The film features an incredible cast. Wallace Shawn and Merritt Wever both make memorable appearances. Alan Alda almost steals all of the scenes that he appears in. An intense and driven Ray Liotta gives a solid performance, but it is Laura Dern who gives the most powerful supporting performance. Dern is outstanding as the sometimes infuriating divorce lawyer that Nicole hires, even though what she is doing doesn’t seem all that different from her memorable stint on Big Little Lies. Both Driver and Johansson receive plenty of meaty scenes wherein they can flex their creative muscles with Baumbach’s exceptionally well-written material, which gets every emotional narrative beat just right. I think that both Johansson and Driver give career-best performances in Marriage Story.
Johansson hasn’t been this good since Lost in Translation, and, on my second viewing of the film, I greatly appreciated how she lets her character open up the floodgates for marital frustration to come pouring out. Thanks to his work in films like Paterson, but also in Star Wars, I have come to think of Adam Driver as one of the best actors of his generation. He brings power and physicality, but also vulnerability and bewilderment to this character. Adam Driver made me well up more than a handful of times, including in the scene where he first blows up completely before he falls to his feet in his clinical apartment. Adam Driver makes the most out of even a sigh or a breath at the end of an impromptu rendition of “Being Alive.”
Brought to life, in part, by Randy Newman’s gentle score and a couple of truly Oscar-worthy performances, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story realistically and sometimes devastatingly depicts a crumbling marriage and the legal disputes that may overshadow the remodeling of that relationship, within which you can still sense a love that persists in spite of changes. In its final scenes, it truly took my breath away. Though by no means unique, I think that Marriage Story is a masterpiece and one of the very best films of the year.
10 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.