Directed by: Noah Baumbach. Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern. Runtime: 2h 17 min. Released: December 6, 2019.
Noah Baumbach takes his direction to another level with Marriage Story, an intimate and unflinching look into the separation of a married couple, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber as they try to maintain some normalcy for their son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
The film feels so raw it’s almost like a documentary, as if we step into their household and watch their fights and watch how this whole divorce unfolds. The chemistry between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson is fantastic here. You can sense the tension, but also the love that’s still there.
Johansson is excellent as Nicole, an actress who has been acting in Charlie’s plays at his theatre company in New York throughout their marriage. Now that their marriage is ending, she takes son Henry and heads out to California, where her mom Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver) live.
She also heads out there because of an upcoming television series that she’s starring in. Scarlett Johansson gives a sense of Nicole’s kindness like Charlie talks about in the film’s opening. She has the presence that when she talks, people listen. The kindness aspect is interesting when it turns on its head during the divorce.
Adam Driver’s only marginally better as Charlie who wants to stay in New York and fight to be able to stay in his son’s life. His fight here is raw and we feel the exhaustion that this divorce is putting him through. Both Driver and Johansson are convincing and natural enough that they could just be playing themselves. That’s part of the attraction of Marriage Story, it feels so natural and real-life that it’s terrifying and heart-wrenching.
The film’s situation is escalated to this boiling point thanks to Nicole’s divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Dern is great at convincing us that she’s nice and just wants what’s best for Nicole and her son, but she’s a real viper and just wants a win for her client at any cost. She’s evil, and Dern plays it perfectly. The character is made more interesting because of Charlie’s initial lawyer Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). It’s obvious that Charlie doesn’t stand a chance because Spitz is too nice compared to Dern’s Fanshaw, so it paints a picture that to win in this business you really do have to be a snake in the grass.
As for the other cast, Julie Hagerty is delightful as Nicole’s mom Susan and Merritt Weaver is great as Nicole’s sister Cassie. We learn that Charlie doesn’t really talk to his family so Nicole’s family is like his family, and that adds such an interesting layer that he’s losing so much more than just Nicole. Azhy Robertson is also very good as Charlie and Nicole’s son Henry, as they both fight for him because he’s the only thing they both really want.
The film does a solid job about showing us both sides to their story and doesn’t ask us to choose sides. Charlie seems to be in the right some time, as does Nicole. I don’t want to spoil any of the character stuff that happens why they’re both in the wrong at times, but when it’s Charlie it’s a character flaw and when it’s Nicole it’s because it feels conniving. Though, on Nicole’s side I think the truly snake-like actions are inspired by her lawyer.
All the bitterness and blame explodes in a scene that’s emotionally raw and terrifying. It’s a shouting match where the actors show the best they have because the dialogue flows so naturally. Though, the acting is equally good in scenes where they’re just talking and you can feel the anger in their words. Marriage Story is just a captivating drama with some very funny moments, too.
Baumbach’s characters are created so well and they’re so rich. The emotional scenes make this a great, albeit uncomfortable, roller coaster of the couple’s ups and downs. It’s like we’re in the son’s shoes, watching Mom and Dad argue because we’re about to get two Christmases. The characters are uncomfortable with the situation and so are we, as the lows are heartbreaking and the highs are enjoyable, so we learn to love those when they’re there.