Marriage Story: Noah Baumbach’s Divorce Masterpiece is Crushing, but Cathartic
Editor's Note: As part of our Shot/Chaser series, we're following up new release reviews with recommendations for old movie pairings. Sara Murphy D'Amico's review of Scenes from a Marriage can be found here.
In Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach starts at the beginning of the end. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are your typical New York family: he’s the avant-garde off-Broadway director and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, she’s the former screen ingénue who has spent the last several years headlining their small theatre company and her husband’s off-kilter shows. They have reached a fulcrum point in their respective careers; Charlie is preparing to open a new play, while Nicole has the chance to star in a television show filming in Los Angeles.
But this bi-coastal arrangement is too much for a marriage that is already on the rocks. Divorce papers are served in short order and the story of a marriage becomes a story of separation, complicated by the presence of their young son Henry. Despite both Nicole’s and Charlie’s asserted desire for compromise and congeniality, the proceedings get messier and nastier, driving the film forward towards the inevitable dissolution of the family unit.
Those familiar with Baumbach’s previous work will not be surprised to find that, despite the grueling nature of the premise, this is far from a dour affair. Though the film will almost certainly leave you in tears, do not be shocked to discover yourself doubled over in laughter just as often. The film is simultaneously one of the most devastating and one of the funniest movies of the year, thanks in large part to a wonderfully nuanced script and a masterful control of shifting tones by Baumbach, who has finally found the perfect balance of caustic wit and truly relatable characters.
Though the characters are well-written enough that they would likely be fully realized if left on the page, the not-so-secret weapons of the film are its perfectly calibrated performances. Johansson and Driver have never been better and their scenes together are simply exquisite; not only do they nail the quiet moments, but they share an emotional set-piece in the middle of the film that is nothing short of a tour de force in how to go big without devolving into scenery chewing. And although the two leads are deservedly soaking up most of the limelight, the supporting players make for more than capable scene partners as well, particularly Hollywood legends Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta, playing attorneys of varying competency and temperament.
This trio is critical to maintaining a degree of levity as the film sinks deeper and deeper into the ugliness of the family court system and the truth that we knew from the start comes even more clearly into focus. The title doesn't lie--this is the story of a marriage, but told through its undoing; though these two still share a child and no small amount of love, some wounds are too deep to heal, some chasms too far to cross. Each scene plays out like a vignette, reaffirming the fact that though Nicole and Charlie can no longer coexist as husband and wife, those roles are not the only ones left to play, and that while this chapter may be closing, there are still plenty of pages left to write.
And this, perhaps, is the true magic of Marriage Story--the understanding that though we are, inevitably, defined by our relationships, they are each but one tale in our own personal saga. We may have spent the past few hours in a darkened room watching Nicole and Charlie fall apart, but when we get up to return to our own stories we do so with a sense of hopefulness, comforted by the knowledge that, more often than not, an end is really just the middle.
In select theaters November 6th; streaming on Netflix December 6th