Divorce is messy. I’m not a child of divorce myself, but it’s safe to say that the concept of losing someone you once held dear is painful and difficult for everyone involved. In Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix film “Marriage Story,” he attempts to focus on and bring that pain and transition from love to defeat to acceptance on screen. At the screening I attended, there was a bowl of “Marriage Story” brand tissues outside of the theater, which eerily set the expectations for what the audience was in for. What the film delivered was a poignant, brilliantly acted, brutally raw and honest look at love and what it means to lose it.
“Marriage Story” is Baumbach’s second directorial effort at Netflix, following up the critically acclaimed “The Meyerowitz Stories.” Baumbach is probably best known for his work on the film as well as directing “Frances Ha,” a film about a dancer in New York starring Greta Gerwig. What these films have in common is how remarkably human they are. Baumbach has a skill for bringing the mundane to the surface and making heartfelt, personal and intimate drama out of it.
The new film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as an artist couple living in New York. Driver plays Charlie, a successful theatre director in New York City who has spent the past 10 years of his career putting on productions with his theater company and his wife, Nicole (Johansson). Nicole is a talented actress who gave up a life in Hollywood to work in theater with Charlie in New York. The film follows the couple as they go through a divorce, try to come to terms with their feelings for each other and fight for the affection of their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
The best place to start talking about this film is in its performances because they are phenomenal. Driver and Johansson are exceedingly gripping. It’s so easy to see the history and connection that their characters have in almost every line that they deliver. Though the whole tissue ordeal really set the expectation that this movie would just be devastating, it wasn’t really until the end. That being said, there were a few moments throughout where my heart sank or I felt pain in my gut due to these performances. They played so well on screen as a couple both in and out of love. Their moments of vulnerability are so sweet, and the dime upon which they switch from that vulnerability to pure rage is not only realistic but even more heartbreaking.
Robertson also did a great job playing Henry. Baumbach seemed determined to showcase how easily children can become pawns and weaponized in divorce. Henry does a good job of playing an innocent kid who accidentally says things he doesn’t realize are hurtful but cut the audience deeply. I bought his performance for the whole film and was overall impressed with the young actor. Laura Dern also appears as Nicole’s cutthroat lawyer, Nora Fanshaw. She plays the role extremely well and looks absolutely gorgeous as a juxtaposition with Nicole, who feels like she’s falling apart, while she seems to have it all figured out. Alan Alda and Ray Liotta also appear as polar opposite lawyers who represent Charlie in the divorce and do a great job in their respective sincerity and intensity with their time on screen.
The script, which was also penned by Baumbach, is strong as well. It builds the history of these two central characters very well and unfolds in interesting ways. The film is mostly dialogue, so it’s important that that dialogue be good and effective, and it is. Charlie and Nicole feel like a real couple with a real history and real issues.
The framing of the story manages to make both characters sympathetic as it starts to feel more and more like their situation is slipping out of their control. Though it seemed that Baumbach was determined to show how slanted against fathers the system is, it sometimes played Charlie’s character too sympathetically and ignored or breezed over some of his flaws in favor of making Nicole seem worse. I would say the story is mostly told from Charlie’s perspective and the moments during the film where he struggles to connect with Henry, who doesn’t know any better than to just say he would rather be with his mom, are heartbreaking and real.
A film this character-focused needs a tight script and “Marriage Story” certainly succeeds in that department. It’s also a fairly pretty-looking movie. Robbie Ryan (“The Favourite,” “The Meyerowitz Stories”) serves as the cinematographer. For it to be gorgeous would feel out of place, but little visual touches and some symbolic camera work make for an enticing watch. A shot early on stands out where Charlie and Nicole are on the subway together and the camera is placed firmly in the center of the car, using the pole in the subway cart to create a physical barrier between the two.
Through its highs and lows, “Marriage Story” grabs the viewer and makes them care about both of these people the same way that they care about each other. When their hearts break, so does yours, and I think that is a feat. Though it’s not the easiest watch, I think it’s certainly worth a viewing.