Marriage Story Movie Review
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly, Mark O'Brien, Matthew Shear, Brooke Bloom, Kyle Bornheimer, Mickey Sumner, Robert Smigel, Rich Fulcher, Lucas Neff, Tunde Adebimpe
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern)
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
After I watched Marriage Story with my husband, we just sat in silence for a while. I really didn’t know what to think about it until I had let it sink in a bit, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story begins with a long voice-over montage of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) explaining what they love – or once loved – about each other. They both consider each other excellent parents to their young son, Henry. She gives great gifts, loves playtime with her son and always forgets to close cabinets around the house. He isn’t scared to show emotion, always remembers inside jokes with his friends and eats his food like someone is going to steal it from him. The heartbreak comes with the reveal that Nicole and Charlie are actually in therapy after having already separated and are reading letters they wrote to each other as part of a counseling session with a marriage mediator.
Despite its gut-wrenching subject matter, Marriage Story uses the tropes that make romantic comedies so successful – witty dialogue, double entendre, sassy BFF’s. These methods are used with such energy and gusto that it’s a real shame that it’s in service of a couple falling apart, not coming together. Conversations feel real and relatable, with lines that overlap and moments of mumbling to find the right word or phrase. The camera gets up close and personal with Nicole and Charlie, and we get to see them look at each other in ways that words fail to describe.
What I loved most about Marriage Story is that it tells both sides equally. There’s no hero here and, perhaps more importantly, there’s no villain. Just as if we were a child stuck in the middle, we get time with each parent, learning about their strengths and their flaws. While Charlie has control issues and was unfaithful to his wife, he also is so tender with his son and loves him unconditionally. Nicole may have taken Henry and moved across the country to live with her mom and sister in Los Angeles, but in a beautifully written monologue (which literally clocks in at about 5 minutes), Nicole explains how she fell in love with Charlie and how she began to feel diminished and unheard in their relationship. In these moments we begin to understand why they’re wrong for each other, and by the end, you care for both of them so deeply that you just hope that they find their own happiness in whatever way they can.
Of course, no movie about divorce is complete without the lawyers. Nicole’s lawyer Nora, played by the AMAZING Laura Dern, and Adam’s lawyers Jay (Ray Liotta) and Bert (Alan Alda) complicate the separation as only lawyers can. Jay even tells Charlie that, by the time this is all over, he will hate him “…because of what we represent in your life.” Nora also tells Nicole that this system “…rewards bad behavior.” Originally wanting to separate without lawyers, Charlie and Nicole learn that bringing in a middleman means secrets are used as weapons, moments of weakness turn you into a bad parent and terms and conditions are negotiated that Nicole and Charlie don’t even want or agree with. It’s heartbreaking, it’s tragic and, for many couples, it’s real.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to not mention the importance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” in this film. For those of you who are unaware, “Company” is a musical series of vignettes that tells the story of a New York bachelor named Bobby, who learns about the perils and pleasures of love, marriage, dating and divorce from his collection of married friends. In Marriage Story, Nicole sings a song from “Company” with her mom and sister (“You Can Drive a Person Crazy”) at a party while Charlie is at a bar singing Bobby’s heartbreaking song, “Being Alive”, about a man just wanting someone to be there to help him feel like a person. By the end of “Company”, Bobby comes to believe and have faith that marriage can be beautiful despite its evident agonies. At the end of Marriage Story, Nicole and Charlie show us that marriage has agonies despite its evident beauty. Brilliant.
In the end, Marriage Story strives for the honesty in this relationship. Nicole and Charlie struggle through the same things that we do – how most arguments are really the same argument in different ways, how leaving a spouse means leaving their family as well, and how those little problems that bring about the end of a relationship are often all there at the beginning.
During a counseling session, Bert tells Charlie that divorce is like “…death without a body”. Something is missing. By the end of this film, we’ve come to care about Nicole and Charlie so much that, as we say goodbye, we hope that they both find what they’re looking for – life after the death of divorce.