REVIEW: Marriage Story [2019]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 136 minutes
    Release Date: November 6th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Noah Baumbach
    Writer(s): Noah Baumbach

The pie was just a pie.

It’s crazy how love changes the way we see things. Ambition can look like genius when we’re there as a supportive cheerleader and narcissism when we begin to recognize our sacrifices in seeing it get fulfilled. Success can be construed as a mutually beneficial byproduct of a union when one is strong and fertile, but also evidence of what we personally brought to the equation despite the other when we’re picking through the past to dissect what went wrong and who’s to blame. We so willingly give ourselves to a relationship no matter its flaws, readily pushing them to the side because we want it to work. So it’s only natural that we’d gravitate towards them in the end as a means to cope with our fractured emotions.

The lesson becomes that oft-stated advice concerning communication. Rather than simply talk about what we truly wanted, we treated it as an aside—almost like a test to see whether the other will see the underlying enthusiasm and adopt it as their desire too—only to grow frustrated when nothing comes of it. We fall into patterns wherein we believe we stated our wants as a declaration while dismissing theirs as a wistful aspiration that may come to fruition or may not depending on how life evolves. And because they’re doing the same, resentment infiltrates our thoughts until those already muddied modes of communication become completely opaque. Eventually one or both has enough, throws a wrench, and watches the ship sink into a sea of regrets.

Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story is that gradual descent towards the ocean floor. It might not seem so during a gorgeous opening prologue depicting all the little things Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) love about one another against voiceover narration describing each with adoration, but it definitely will once the camera shifts to the present and finds them on opposite ends of a mediator’s office with spite, aggression, and sarcasm separating them even further. They were reading us letters of memory to begin a process of healing before amicable divorce proceedings begin—words they’re now supposed to read aloud to each other. She refuses. Her vehemence gets him to volunteer his as an unwitting but obvious display of superiority. And their seeds of pain and rage bloom.

Everything, big and small, starts falling apart from that point on. The two were a team on the surface: Charlie an up-and-coming off-Broadway, avant-garde director and Nicole his muse, star, and constant collaborator. She had a potential career in Hollywood upon meeting him, but the two built a spark of lust into a life instead. She ultimately wanted more, though. She deserved more. Whenever something was decided, it almost always benefited his dreams. He was under the impression his dreams were also hers. And while she might not have told him outright that they weren’t, he never asked. So when she took it upon herself to inject her passion into their shared existence, he laughed as though it was a joke. Then he sought to exploit it.

So now they’re at an impasse with different paths forward and a common love for their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) ensuring they’ll forever be tied together. He wants to stay in New York like he deluded himself into believing she did too. She decides to move back to Los Angeles for work with an inclination to stay. They want to make the bi-coastal thing work with kisses, support, and empathy because the separation is still new and neither has really let it hit them that their lives will be irrevocably changed. A high-powered divorce attorney (Laura Dern‘s Nora) therefore arrives as a jolt of electricity. She lays out the facts to Nicole, exposes both to the dogfight arbitration will demand, and shows Charlie that feelings will get hurt.

Baumbach holds nothing back. He’s gone through a divorce himself (with Jennifer Jason Leigh and a child between them) and experienced one via his parents too. That didn’t stop him from conducting research into what else might arise from the act through love, betrayal, or common sense. You can feel so much of that shine through the lawyer characters whether it be Dern’s wonderfully pragmatic yet genuinely caring Nora, Alan Alda‘s optimistic and holistic approach as Bert, and Ray Liotta‘s cutthroat opportunist willing to do whatever is necessary to win and pocket his commission. They each pass through the spaces that separate their tactics, moving from an agreed position of doing what their client wants to one where they feed them what it is they should want instead.

It’s at times brutal yet authentic and sad yet hopeful. There are a ton of laughs too that come naturally (Julie Hagerty is so good as Nicole’s mother and Charlie’s, perhaps unlikely, confidant) and others that arrive on the fringes (Wallace Shawn isn’t on-screen a lot as one a member of Charlie’s theater troupe, but ever word out of his mouth is gold). It’s situationally hilarious too whether in the quietly pensive moments (a silent subway ride home after avoiding each other at a group outing) or the awkward requirements of divorce (family members turning on the ex, an auditor grading living conditions for trial, and the heated exchanges neither Nicole nor Charlie expected to endure at the beginning). Funny often transforms into heartache too, though.

So while I remember more than a few laugh-out-loud scenes, I couldn’t describe them as vividly as those ending in tears. Johansson and Driver have never been better excelling at both—and I’m already a fan. The melancholic duality of their circumstances never leaves their faces, their suffering always possessed by nostalgia to calm as much as infuriate. With some intense verbal spats born from a decade of happiness and disappointment, we know their love hasn’t disappeared. It’s merely in the process of undergoing a metamorphosis. It will take catharsis, self-reflection, and honesty to exit out the other side intact with an experience that’s humbling rather than empowering. They might have failed as a couple, but the possibility to succeed as friends remains. Love sometimes demands a revision.

courtesy of Netflix / Wilson Webb

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