Movie Review – Marriage Story (2019)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Critics Choice Awards gave this film eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The Golden Globes gave this film six nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama. The Screen Actors Guild gave it three nominations. It was named one of the best films of the year from the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review. It was also nominated for prizes at the Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards. It’s expected to get recognized at the 92nd Academy Awards. Writer-director Noah Baumbach has been invited to the Oscars before. He was nominated once for The Squid and the Whale (2005). He wasn’t nominated but he co-wrote The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which was up for Best Animated Feature. His last feature was even up for the Palme d’Or. His work is always highly acclaimed, and this film might be his best work.
The Squid and the Whale put him on the map. That film was his parents’ real-life divorce. This film is reportedly also about his personal experience, that of his own real-life divorce. It’s rather ironic that he titled the film what it is, given that it is about divorce. Obviously, a divorce might be the best way to understand a marriage or it’s a more direct way of exposing the good and the bad. It’s more from the couple’s point-of-view than The Squid and the While, which is more from the point-of-view of the teen children. Yet, like The Squid and the Whale, the dissolution here centers on the careers of the husband and wife and the two drifting apart due to their jobs.
Adam Driver has been in several films by Baumbach. His first Oscar nomination for acting was for last year’s BlacKkKlansman (2018), but this film will most likely get Driver his second Oscar nod for acting. Given that he’s done four films with Baumbach, the most he’s done with any other filmmaker, it’s no surprise that this is probably Driver’s best performance since he began in the industry a decade ago. He stars as Charlie Barber, a stage director who is running his own theater company in New York City. He wants to continue his life in New York and he doesn’t want to leave.
Scarlet Johansson (Jojo Rabbit and Avengers: Endgame) has never been nominated for an Oscar, but this film might be her first. She plays Nicole Barber, the wife to Charlie and the mother to their son, Henry, played by Azhy Robertson. She lives with Charlie and their son in Brooklyn, but she was born in Los Angeles and that’s where all her family lives. She wants to move back there. She gets the opportunity to do so when she gets a TV job in Hollywood. This is in the wake of the two having marital problems. She eventually decides though that she wants to divorce him and live with her son in L.A.
If you’ve seen the recent Emmy-winning series Fosse/Verdon on FX, then it’s not that difficult to see what Nicole’s issues are. Like Fosse/Verdon, she’s an actress living in the shadow of her husband who’s a director. Charlie isn’t as successful a director as Bob Fosse. It’s arguable if Nicole has a career that’s comparable to that of Gwen Verdon. Yet, Charlie and Nicole have the same basic dynamic as in Fosse/Verdon. There’s thankfully not as much sexism or infidelity, but those things are there. Yet, Baumbach’s script doesn’t delve as deep into those issues, as Fosse/Verdon did.
Most of those issues are addressed through the lawyers whom Nicole and Charlie hire to represent them for their dissolution. Laura Dern (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Jurassic Park) plays Nora Fanshaw, a woman who is very compassionate toward women and a fierce advocate for them. Ray Liotta (Shades of Blue and Goodfellas) plays Jay Marotta, a shark of a lawyer or a bull who is very blunt and direct with no compassion per se, but is a fierce advocate for his clients.
Watching these actors, not just the main four, but the rest of the supporting cast, is what’s most incredible. Each person is so memorable in each of their moments. Through Nicole, we feel her desperation to have what she calls “a piece of Earth that’s hers.” Through Charlie, we get a desperation to hold onto his son. She feels like she’s lost or is losing herself. He feels as if his family is being pulled away. The fact is he might have already lost his family, or the idea of it in NYC, and he simply won’t accept it. Baumbach infuses some great humor in the narrative. Most of it comes from the frustrations in the process of divorcing, as well as in some of the quirky side characters. The funniest scene is Charlie having to try to make a good impression to a social worker who comes to observe him with his son. It’s an example of the awkwardness and frustration of the process. That combined with a quirky character and Driver’s brilliant performance make for an amazing scene.
However, Baumbach also brings poignancy and pathos that is really affecting. Much of that pathos comes from the two parents going at each other and reconciling their feelings. They realize and express why they can’t be together but also in subtle ways that they did and do love each other. Of course, everyone talks about an epic fight that occurs between the two toward the end. It does deliver two great actors at the top of their game, giving it their all and it’s not over-the-top, melodramatic or scenery chewing.
Looking through the list of films about divorce and couples fighting over custody and other things, I find that I seem to have a personal bias where I favor divorce films. Most people make the comparison to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), which is probably the most successful film about a couple getting a divorce. However, Baumbach directly references Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973), a very influential film to many filmmakers. This film isn’t on the same level as that Bergman classic, but it does excel in its writing, acting and direction.
If you like films about divorce as I do, then check out Blue Valentine (2010), A Separation (2011) and What Maisie Knew (2012). All three of those films made my top 10 list the years of their release. This one will do the same. I really enjoyed The Squid and the Whale, but I haven’t been a fan of all of Baumbach’s works. This is probably though the best film from Baumbach thus far.
Rated R for language and sexual references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 16 mins.
Available on Netflix.