Movie Review: ‘Marriage Story’ is a profoundly realistic divorce drama

December 6, 2019

This image released by Netflix shows Scarlett Johansson, left, and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story." (Netflix via AP)

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

Don’t be fooled by the title. “Marriage Story” should be called “Divorce Story.”

That would better prepare you for the highly realistic, yet emotionally draining experience of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, loosely based on his own divorce and featuring powerfully human performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

Not every movie is meant to entertain. Some are meant to capture the harshest of realities. Spend your moviegoing money accordingly, knowing that you are in for dramatic heartache, but also a transcendent experience that exposes hard truths on a personal level dissecting relationships and a societal level exposing our legal system.

The film follows actress Nicole Barber (Johansson), who is pursuing a TV career in Los Angeles while her theater director husband Charlie (Driver) is producing a play that once starred her and is now on the brink of a MacArthur Fellowship in New York City. The two attempt an amicable split, but the unforgiving legal system drags them into a harrowing bicoastal custody battle over their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Even if the subject matter is inherently tough, the dueling lead performances are must-see work by two of the finest actors in Hollywood today, a fact you might forget during their blockbuster work as Black Widow in “The Avengers” and Kylo Ren in “Star Wars.”

Johansson’s role is clearly the more sympathetic one, painted as the victim who was betrayed emotionally and professionally, having given up other TV work in order to feed her husband’s career. She no doubt pulls from her own real-life divorces from Ryan Reynolds and Romain Dauriac to turn in a heartfelt performance filled with teary breakdowns during arguments and ashamed glances at the floor in the courtroom.

It might just be her career-best work, wearing her heart on her sleeve. After “Lost in Translation,” “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Her” and “Under the Skin,” this deserves to be Johansson’s year to win the Oscar, but she’ll have to go through Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy.” Considering Zellweger already has an Oscar for “Cold Mountain,” it would be a pleasant surprise for Johansson to finally get her due.

The same goes for Driver, who has steadily built a resume with the era’s best directors: Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Patterson,” Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” for which he earned his first Oscar nomination. This year, expect his first Lead Actor nod in a battle with Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker.”

In “Marriage Story,” he is an utter powerhouse, erupting into wall-pounding outbursts, then looking inward during the divorce proceedings. His flawed character is obviously not as likable due to his past selfishness, but someone has to be the antagonist. In real life, the Juliiard-trained actor and Marine Corps veteran is insanely likable, one of those actors you root for to succeed with each and every role, still married to his wife Joanne Tucker, together co-founding Arts in the Armed Forces. What’s not to love?

While the two leads will most certainly be nominated, the most likely winner will come for Best Supporting Actress, as Laura Dern steals the show as Nicole’s fiery divorce lawyer Nora. After “Blue Velvet,” “Jurassic Park” and “Wild,” it’s crazy to think that Dern has never won, but this role should do the trick, taking no prisoners and delivering the best single monologue in the entire film (cue it up for the Oscar clip package, please).

Equally impressive are Charlie’s competing divorce lawyers. First, Ray Liotta appears as a cutthroat attorney who will win at all costs even if he has to bury good people in the process. This contrasts with the sweet Alan Alda, who yearns to maintain some semblance of respect between the couple throughout the proceedings. Rounding out the cast is Julie Hagerty, who hams it up as Nicole’s loopy mother, delivering the “quirky comedy” moments Baumbach often infuses into his mundane observations.

Just as Baumbach based his breakthrough “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) on his parents’ divorce, the auteur now bases “Marriage Story” on his own 2013 divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. His camerawork isn’t flashy, but rather thoughtfully composed with doorways creating symbolic divides. He strives for Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), building to a monster blowout argument to rival Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” (1963) or Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” (2013).

Consider yourself warned: these scenes can be hard to watch. At the same time, it’s Baumbach’s most accessible film yet, which may not be saying much for laymen but is an admirable feat of balance if you’ve seen his previous work. “The Squid and the Whale” tied its esoteric title into an ambiguous ending, while “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017) left comedy fans of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller scratching their heads.

His most accessible works have starred muse Greta Gerwig, from “Frances Ha” (2012) to “Mistress America” (2015). Fittingly, Gerwig broke off into her own promising directing career with “Lady Bird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019), so now that the pupil has become the master, it’s nice to see that Baumbach still has juice in the tank.

His craft shows in the way he fractures the narrative, starting out with Charlie reading a letter about what he loves about Nicole, then showing Nicole reading a letter about what she loves about Charlie. Yes, it’s similar to “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” but Baumbach finds a clever way to tie these seemingly separate strands back together in the end, leaving us contemplating humanity to Randy Newman’s score.

When the credits roll, you’ll ponder what you’ve just seen, which brings us back to the misleading title. Surely it was changed to “Marriage Story” to put more butts in the seats with the producers wondering, “Who would pay to see a film called ‘Divorce Story?'” Your reaction to that question will determine your take on the movie. It won’t send audiences soaring out of the theater like Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s custody battle in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), but it’s a damn fine piece of work.

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