Had I not been struck down with festive flu last week, I had planned to write a post about the things I liked and disliked about the latest Star Wars film. One of those things was Adam Driver and his Kylo Ren oversized sweater vibes. It was hot. It’s probably not the right thing to take away from The Rise of Skywalker but the casual Kylo Ren vibe is everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always believed Adam Driver was a beautiful man but his appearance in the last quarter of the film is insane. It was one of the first things my friend and I discussed upon leaving the showing. And it was something we both needed after watching him in Marriage Story. There’s nothing like showing two beautiful people going through a messy divorce to make them instantly unappealing. It feels like we’ve been hearing about marriage story for years and the wait has only increased my expectations and excitement for it. On paper, it had everything it needed to be great and provide Netflix with another Oscar contender. Even though I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson fan, I was excited to see how these two actors would work together. And I love me some Laura Dern and Noah Baumbach. It’s one of those cases where something would have needed to go horribly horribly wrong for not to enjoy it. But, let’s not forget, this is Netflix…
When Marriage Story opened with Adam Driver’s voice-over I was ready to give up on the whole thing. It’s never normally an indication that great things are coming. Yet, there is something in the combination of the words, the images, and the score that suggest all is not as it seems. After Scarlett Johansson gets her own voice-over, the audience gets to see the pair are actually performing an exercise with the man hoping to help mediate their divorce. The intention is that reminding each other of why they fell in love will make it easier for the pair to separate with as little hurt as possible. The fact that the pair can’t even make it through the exercise shows that this outcome is highly unlikely. It is the first step in what is set to be an emotional and powerful look at a marriage ending and a family being torn apart.
Driver’s Charlie is a big name in the New York theatre scene. He runs his own theatre company and is something of an experimental director. Johansson’s Nicole was a teen actor who was set to embark on a big-time movie career. Then she met Charlie and fell in love. The pair have put their time and effort into building up the theatre company but Nicole is having to come to terms with Charlie being the famous one. Their marriage has been far from perfect for a while. Nicole feels as though she has lost her identity and put her dreams on hold. Charlie, in response to this, has started having an affair. Nicole wants out of the marriage but had hoped to keep it civil for their son, Henry. Then she hires a bigshot attorney and things start to get a bit more complicated.
Marriage Story is not just the story of a divorce but about the breakdown of communication between two people. Nicole tells her attorney that the thing she first loved about Charlie was the talking. Everything else was great but it was the fact that she had finally found somebody who she could be herself around and just talk to. Now, the pair are leading separate lives in separate parts of the country. Nicole and Henry are living full-time in LA as she makes a television pilot, so Charlie is flying out from New York whenever he can get away from work. They are now having conversations through their lawyers or shouting insults back and forth. The culmination of all of the animosity comes in an intense exchange taking place in Charlie’s bare LA apartment. As the insults get more barbed the camera moves closer and tightens on their faces.
It’s an amazing scene that works so well because of the two leads. Both Driver and Johansson are both fantastic here. You believe their performances and you can associate with the way their characters act during these events. Charlie and Nicole are both given moments that you won’t like but are, for the most part, each played sympathetically enough. Neither side is given more sway than the other and the controlled performances make this more apparent. The supporting cast is all equally exciting with Laura Dern and Ray Liotta providing some comedic and light moments as two divorce lawyers. This is a strong ensemble cast but everyone else is definitely pushed into the background thanks to the two lead actors. Oscar nominations are a certainty at this point and they’re well-deserved.
After all, despite the amount of vitriol that is associated with a divorce, Marriage Story is an incredibly funny and sweet film. It never descends into the dark chasm that films of this nature normally do. We see two people coming to terms with something sad and having to work through that their own way. Of course, they both make mistakes but this is about human beings trying to do their best. There are lots of funny one-liners and a really silly sequence surrounding the serving of the divorce papers. Just as the film opens with memories of happier times, this is a film that never forgets that these two people were once very much in love. Really, Marriage Story is a film that defies genres. It has something of everything in there. It even manages a couple of musical segments including an unforgettable rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ by Adam Driver.
I could sit here for hours listing the influences that can be seen throughout this film. I could make countless comparisons to Kramer vs Kramer or talk about how similar it is to a Woody Allen film. But, despite all of them, this film feels utterly like a Noah Baumbach film. It is his most personal film to date as it relates to his own divorce from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. You see connections with his earlier work The Squid and the Whale, which was inspired by his parents’ divorce. Baumbach has made a wonderful and clever film and it quite probably is his best work to date. Marriage Story is a love story that comes about through the destruction of a relationship. It never takes sides and it never descends into anything too full of despair. It’s funny but full of tragic elements. You feel bad for these characters just as you condemn their behaviour. It is a film full of heart and full of humanity.