Soulmates are bullshit and you know it. The idea that there is a single person for you in the entire world only for you is laughable at the very least. There are dozens of people in your town who you could feasibly settle down with given the right moves are taken. Marriage was initially set up as an arranged coupling of families for financial or real estate purposes, not for true love. The changing nature of marriage coming into the modern age has made marriage into a declaration of true love and dedication to one individual. Because of this change in the nature of marriage, and the feebleness of the idea of a soulmate, divorce has become more common. For some people, this new system works; for others, it does not. Marriage Story tells the tale of when it does not.
Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a theater director for a modestly popular off-broadway company specializing in the avant-garde. Charlie is married to his acting muse and former teen star Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and they have an eight-year-old son together, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie and Nicole are also going through an amicable, yet undeniably strenuous divorce. On top of Nicole wanting to head west to return to screen acting, and Charlie wanting his roots to stay firmly planted in the New York theater scene, their respective lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta) begin to tear at the fabric of their co-parenting and personal relationship, causing their divorce to spiral into something much more unpleasant.
Simply put, Marriage Story is unlike any story about love in an incredibly long time. It’s a pitch-perfect tale of the type of love that stays and the type that goes within the dissolution of relationships. Noah Baumbach knows that break-ups, whether they be simpler splits or nasty divorces, are never as cut-and-dry as most films would lead the public to believe. There are awkward and ugly nuances as well as beautiful moments of levity that almost all media seemingly ignore in the process of documenting break-ups. These moments of mundanity are what make Marriage Story frustratingly relatable and devastating to watch. This is not a divorce that’s perfectly amicable, nor is it a cage match of rage. It’s something that falls somewhere in between, in the middling, anxiety-ridden land of accepting the reality of the situation while feeling the impact of all the emotional gravity tearing someone apart.
And it’s the construction of Marriage Story that brings all of these horribly tense and awkward moments to the forefront with the utmost vulnerability. The beauty of the story is that there is not a single antagonist in the film, but merely players in the game. Both Charlie and Nicole have frustrating tendencies and maddening ideas about the trajectories of their lives which bring them to such three-dimensional life that it feels frighteningly close to home. For each of Nicole’s likable qualities, there’re somethings the audience will hate about her. The same goes for Charlie. Divorce isn’t easy, nor is it one-sided, and Baumbach understands this in how he seeks to portray not just his protagonists, but the players in the story surrounding them. The lawyers, however, focused on their work as they may be, harbor no ill will to their opposing party, despite how ugly any legal proceedings might make it seem. The bureaucracy of family law is the catalyst for the devastating content of Marriage Story, but it’s not something that ever feels unfairly maligned, but as simply frustratingly paradoxical.
While Marriage Story is a masterclass in nearly every regard, its impressive cast and flooring performances elevate the film to something else entirely. Driver, who has dipped his feet in both massive blockbusters and tiny indies, gives easily the best performance of 2019 thus far, if not one of the best of the decade, as Charlie. It’s a once-in-a-career performance that spans such an immense emotional spectrum that it becomes difficult to comprehend how you could be laughing at one scene while still struggling to hold back tears from the previous scene. The same could also be said for Johansson’s performance, which is also an incredibly powerful display of confusion and desperation in the time of turmoil. While her character isn’t given as much emotional punch as Charlie, if only due to the more meek nature of her character, Johansson gives a career-best performance.
Also worth mentioning are the absolutely stellar performances from Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw) and Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), who might not make it into much marketing material for the film, but make cases for Marriage Story to sweep all four acting categories at the Oscars this year, to which I would hold no gripes. Dern, who plays Nicole’s fiercely fabulous feminist lawyer, definitely has shades of Renata Klein, her character from HBO’s Big Little Lies, but morphs into something far different and more tender. Alda, on the other hand, as Charlie’s first lawyer, compliments Charlie’s nature to such a degree that it often feels more like a father-son pairing than an attorney-client relationship. His quiet softness and true interest in helping Charlie make his claims as easily as possible is a side to Alda that we as viewers have never seen before, 61 years into his acting career.
Shot on lush 35mm film in an uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Marriage Story evokes the dreamlike (or nightmarelike) feel of the films of François Truffaut greatly. It paints an intimately framed picture of great mundanity, with an appreciation for the little things in life that make us feel warm and cozy, like a haircut or a great cup of tea, as well as the colder aspects of life in sterile offices and bare apartments that leave the soul feeling empty. All of this is married together by a magically effervescent score from Randy Newman which feels far more fluttery than the material might indicate but works absolutely wonderfully with the directions the film goes in during its final act.
Marriage Story is unlike anything else you could see at the movies (or Netflix, in this case) this year. Full stop. It’s hands-down Baumbach’s best film to date, lacking any of the pretension that plagues some of his previous work, replacing it with a gentle naïveté that blossoms into full emotional devastation by the film’s conclusion. Yet, it’s Marriage Story and its focus on the progression of life during and after a break-up, and the nuances found within it that bring the piece together with some of the finest acting seen in any film this decade. Divorced or not, regardless of one’s experiences, there’s a part of Marriage Story that will feel like a mirror has been held up in your face, forcing you to contemplate every relationship you’ve ever had, and the destruction left in each of their respective paths.
In select theaters beginning November 6th, 2019.
Available for streaming December 6th, 2019 on Netflix.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.