“Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”
There are many films that tell entertaining or compelling stories, but there are far fewer that are so real that they hurt. Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, is definitely real enough to hurt. It’s a story of a divorce—and Baumbach has done a so-real-it-hurts divorce movie before in The Squid and the Whale, but, where that one was emotionally brutal, this story has that raw emotional brutality, but it’s tempered with love and a touch of humor (there are a few laugh-out-loud funny scenes) that keep it from getting too depressing. So couple a smart script with what are perhaps the best performances of the two leads’ careers and you get an outstanding dramatic film on par with some of the hardest-hitting classics out there.
The story opens with Nicole and Charlie, an actress and a director respectively, beginning to figure out their separation and impending divorce. The splitting couple obviously care about each other and want to do things amicably, but divorces can bring out the worst in people, and that’s what the film shows. When Nicole, at the behest of a friend, hires a divorce attorney whose success measures are financial and power gains, Charlie is forced to hire his own attorney to defend himself from the lawyer’s increasingly aggressive demands. And when the depersonalization of the couple dealing with each other only through lawyers sets in, things begin to get ugly.
I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness.
I’m writing this shortly before the announcement of Oscar nominees for 2019, but if both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are not at least nominated for their phenomenal acting in this film, I think people will riot. Adam Driver may be most known for his roles in Star Wars and BlacKkKlansman, but make no mistake—he’s one of the best rising actors of his generation. While the role starts out a bit reserved, Driver (and Baumbach) quickly show that there’s a virtual ocean of emotion that Charlie is holding back that comes spilling out in a few scenes. Some of the fights are extremely well-acted, but there’s a tender moment toward the end of the film where Driver actually sings a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Company (recorded live, in one take). It’s one of those things that I didn’t think would work, but it was one of the most human moments I can remember in recent film.
Johannson has been a great actress since early in her career, but she’s recently, unfortunately, gotten this reputation as the pretty girl. She lets that facade down in this film, unafraid to show Nicole in an unflattering light, without makeup, tears streaming down her face, and she shows some incredibly complex and nuanced emotions. Nicole is an emotional person who knows not to be too emotional, because people will call her over-emotional, and there’s a real subtlety in her emotions as she works very hard to keep herself in check. At the same time, her struggle to find herself in the shadow of her husband is undeniable, and there are some powerful moments when she does just that. Particularly impressive was an emotional monologue Nicole delivers to her new lawyer, done flawlessly in one continuous take. Johansson also sings a song from Sondheim’s Company, and it also works in an unexpected way to humanize the character.
As I said, Marriage Story feels painfully real, and it’s due in part to director Baumbach basing the script loosely on his divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. (Leigh apparently read the script and later saw the film and liked it.) Scarlett Johansson was actually secretly going through her second divorce when Baumbach contacted her about being in the film. The personal nature of the subject matter really helps make this film feel real and surprisingly tender. The film is very unbiased with how it shows the two lead characters, being respectful to both but unafraid to show their flaws—I found myself relating a lot more closely with Nicole, but I’ve seen reviews that stated the opposite.
The feeling of Marriage Story is an interesting one in that it’s a story about divorce, but it’s also a story about love. This isn’t a story of two people who fell out of love; it’s a story about two people who couldn’t bear to love each other any longer. A less delicate writer/director would have either turned this into a hamfisted drama or a straight black comedy, but Baumbach balances both comedy and drama into one seamless story. There are some really hard-hitting emotional scenes, but I found myself laughing out loud in a few places as well, such as Charlie’s knife trick and the follow-up.
Marriage Story is both brilliantly written and acted, and it succeeds tremendously as both a comedy and a drama, showing Noah Baumbach to be one of the brightest writers and directors today. It’s brilliant, but also very sad (which is to be expected for a realistic film about divorce). Don’t expect a Hollywood story, and be prepared to see great characters at their worst. With that in mind, this is an amazing film that I thoroughly enjoyed and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a mature comedy-drama.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Genres: comedy, drama, indie